TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) - Florida lawmakers, who received a directive from voters in November to increase spending to protect water sources and sensitive lands, were told to "think big and act boldly" by the state agriculture commissioner on Thursday.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told members of the House State Affairs Committee that any approach to addressing Florida's water needs should first focus on restoring natural springs and revising laws to reflect progress on Lake Okeechobee and the Northern Everglades. He also said lawmakers need to complete the implementation of the Central Florida Water Initiative, which ties together the St. Johns River Water Management District, the South Florida Water Management District and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Meanwhile, he said the state needs to review its land-management policies and set priorities on purchasing new lands that close gaps between wildlife corridors and create buffers around military bases.
"We need to view this from a long-term perspective, the 10 to 20 years," Putnam said. "We need to estimate how much it's going to cost us and prioritize by project. So that as legislatures change, economic conditions change, budgets change, but if the policy is right, the investments that you're making, whether you can afford to make an enormous investment one year, and scale back the next, we're still moving down the road making the right investments based on an already prioritized policy."
Committee members didn't ask any questions, but Putnam said afterward he anticipates that will change as "this is a lot to dump on somebody at one meeting."
Meanwhile, through work Putnam has done with House leadership, a bill is expected to be rolled out that will include many of the commissioner's proposals.
Environmentalists credited Putnam with taking leadership on the issue.
"He's building on something that the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and water management districts have been working on, but he's making sure they get the attention they deserve from the Legislature," said Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues.
Putnam's comments were also applauded by the H20 Coalition, a group formed by the business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, which was a critic of the "Florida Water and Land Legacy" constitutional amendment approved by voters in November.
"Commissioner Putnam's recommendations provide an excellent framework to increase Florida's water supply and enact common-sense, science-based water quality reforms," AIF President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Feeney said in a prepared statement.
With the 2015 legislative session starting in March, Putnam has requested $25 million for the Rural and Family Lands Program, which allows farmers and ranchers to continue to use their land while the state is able to keep those parcels from being developed. Also he is seeking $18 million to fight diseases impacting the citrus industry. He also intends to seek increased funding for springs maintenance and reforestation efforts.
Since voters approved the "Florida Water and Land Legacy" amendment, lawmakers have heard from a growing number of interests about how to carve up the money --- estimated to reach $650 million to $750 million next year.
The amendment, which received support from 75 percent of the voters, devotes 33 percent of the revenue from a type of real-estate tax to conservation efforts.
Since the amendment was approved, lawmakers have differed on how to define land-preservation and water-conservation projects, how the state should determine which of its "impaired" water bodies is most critical and how to approach the reduction of stormwater runoff and agricultural fertilizer use.
Putnam's approach of creating a long-term plan appears in part to mirror a proposal from Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. Gardiner has suggested lawmakers lay out future water and land preservation efforts in a 5-year plan updated annually, similar to how transportation projects are prioritized.
"We know the price tag is much greater than what we have to spend, so let's have a road map for how to get there," Putnam said after the meeting.
Putnam said even if the amendment wasn't approved, lawmakers would have needed to address water issues this year as the wetland-dominated peninsula houses 19.9 million people, a $100 billion-a-year agricultural industry and nearly 100 million tourists a year.
"Our identity as a state is attached to water," Putnam said. "We really have an opportunity to think big and act boldly."
Among the situations facing Florida is that the freshwater demands are expected to reach 7.5 billion gallons a day by 2030, which would be a 20 percent increase from 2010, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Public consumption, which accounts for more than 40 percent of the state's water demands, is expected to grow 30 percent. Agriculture, which is now under 40 percent of the state's water demand, is projected to see a 5 percent increase in use.
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