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State multi-year plan sought for water-related projects

 The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is now accepting requests for water-quality grants from local governments, academic institutions, and nonprofits. More than $390 million is available to plan and put into practice projects that protect Florida’s water resources.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
A multi-year method of planning for water projects in Florida, similar to how transportation projhects are set, is being urged by the non-profit Florida TaxWatch.

TALLAHASSEE --- As Florida’s rapid growth continues, the non-profit Florida TaxWatch on Wednesday called for using a multi-year plan for water-related projects, similar to how the state has long prioritized transportation projects.

TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro said following the model of the Department of Transportation's rolling 5-year work program could eliminate the state’s current method of funding water projects, which his group called “inconsistent and disjointed.”

“The current system to fund water projects, both through grant programs and through member (lawmaker) projects, does not have the kind of consistency to allow for a comprehensive, coordinated statewide strategy," Calabro said during a news conference at the Capitol. “And Floridians do not currently have the assurance that the best projects to achieve that strategy are selected.”

But setting up a system that ranks water projects isn’t ready for “prime time,” Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City, said.

Overdorf, a member of the House Water Quality, Supply & Treatment Subcommittee, said that while regional planning councils have also voiced support for a ranking system, there “needs to be a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan” before any legislation is rolled out.

"Water projects are very complex," Overdorf said. "They happen at the local level. They happen at the statewide level, regional level. So, how does that fit into a work plan? How does that not overlap with comprehensive Everglades restoration or how does it? Those are things that we have yet to work out."

A TaxWatch report said a series of issues make it hard to determine projects with the highest return on investments. Those issues include myriad grant programs, one-time investments, recurring programs in the state budget and an increased number of local water projects that get earmarks.

This year’s budget includes $796 million for targeted water-quality improvements, with 268 water projects requested by lawmakers totaling $433 million. During the past five years, the state has allocated $1.1 billion for 910 local water projects sought by lawmakers.

“While many of these projects are worthwhile, they circumvent the competitive review processes that are in place and likely take dollars away from high-priority projects,” TaxWatch Senior Vice President of Research Kurt Wenner said.

Meanwhile, in the past few years the Legislature has created new grant programs for wastewater and resiliency efforts that call for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research has estimated that $205.1 billion will be needed by 2040 to improve and build stormwater and wastewater services.

A proposal for a list of water-project priorities was floated in 2015 by then-Senate President Andy Gardiner after voters approved the “Florida Water and Land Legacy” constitutional amendment in 2014.

The amendment directed lawmakers for 20 years to put one-third of annual revenue collected through documentary stamp taxes on real-estate transactions into conservation efforts.

Since then, legislators have gradually targeted the funding, including sending about $200 million a year to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, $50 million to the state’s natural springs and $50 million to the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project.