By Erika Webb
The Florida Supreme Court has deemed the Water and Land Conservation constitutional amendment legally fit for placement on the November 2014 ballot.
The amendment would dedicate funding for conservation, management and restoration of Florida's water and land resources for 20 years, setting aside one-third of the existing documentary stamp tax -- paid when real estate is sold -- "to restore the Everglades, protect drinking water sources and revive the state's historic commitment to protecting natural lands and wildlife habitat through the Florida Forever program," according to a news release from Tallahassee.
What does that mean for Volusia County, the Intracoastal Waterway, St. Johns River and imperiled springs?
Do we have time to wait until the amendment, if balloted and passed, takes effect in 2015?
Florida's Water and Land Legacy is the campaign working to get the amendment on the ballot and win voter approval in 2014. The organization is supported by nearly 4,000 volunteers and more than 330 conservation and civic organizations throughout the state. More than 385,000 Florida voters have signed petitions, according to FloridaWaterLandLegacy.org.
"This is a monumental step as we continue gathering petitions to place this important measure on the ballot. Our campaign is proving that Floridians care deeply about our state's natural heritage and want to safeguard it for future generations," said Will Abberger the campaign's chair and director of conservation finance for The Trust for Public Land, in the release. "With the Florida Supreme Court's stamp of approval, we can now move forward to asking voters to establish protection of Florida's water and land as a constant commitment and not something that shifts with the political winds."
The amendment will provide more than $10 billion for water and land conservation in Florida without any tax increase, the release also noted.
The Indian River Lagoon, which spans 156 miles along the Atlantic coast of six Florida counties, is North America's most diverse estuary. In recent years, 35 of the lagoon's species have been listed as threatened or endangered.
Last month the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach hosted a forum at which a panel of experts addressed challenges in the lagoon and resulting mortality issues for estuarine species. Topics included presence of brown tide in the IRL; seagrass loss; oyster beds and shellfish; deaths of manatees and dolphins; and impacts of commercial and recreational fishing. Possible citizen action also was discussed.
In late September, Adopt-An-Estuary volunteers completed the fall seagrass surveys at five sites in the northern Indian River Lagoon. The sites are part of a network of 100 throughout the IRL that have been monitored by St. Johns River Water Management District since the mid-1990s. The survey results allow SJRWMD to regularly map and monitor seagrass beds throughout the lagoon.
The MDC reported all data has been submitted to Lori Morris, an environmental scientist at SJRWMD who has been surveying sea grasses in the IRL for more than 20 years, and spoke on the subject at the forum.
"Although her surveys show steady growth of seagrass beds followed by a recent drastic loss in most areas, she remains hopeful about the resilience of the lagoon. Some regions are starting to show slow regrowth of seagrass," the MDC reported. "In other areas, experimental seagrass transplants quickly attracted fish and invertebrates to a previously bare area."
"It may be several years before we see a lagoon full of thick seagrass beds again," MDC noted, "but if we control our pollution levels and work to restore the natural ecosystem, we'll be on the right track!"
MDC began a new oyster-recycling project Oct. 1, using proceeds generated by the 2013 Halifax Oyster Festival as well as grant money awarded by the SJRWMD and the National Estuary Program.
The center hopes to restore Eastern Oyster habitats by recycling oyster shells collected from area businesses. The Halifax Oyster Festival also contributed all of the oyster shells discarded during the festival from oysters that were consumed.
Volunteers will help to construct shell mats for artificial reefs, using recycled oyster shells collected from area businesses and the festival, according to the MDC.
"Embryonic oysters in the lagoon attach to the constructed reefs to create new colonies of oysters, thereby restoring shorelines that have lost habitation. Oysters are known as 'filter feeders' in the lagoon, filtering water through their gills, so more healthy oysters help produce cleaner water," according to the MDC's website.
The SJRWMD is now implementing its FY 2013-14 budget, which funds projects and programs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, 2014.
"We expect to continue to fund projects that advance our core missions of water supply, flood protection, water quality and natural systems protection and improvement," the district's public communications coordinator, Teresa Monson, explained in an emailed response to questions.
In developing annual budgets the SJRWMD also seeks opportunities to leverage district revenues with those of the state and local governments, she noted.
The district's five-year strategic plan is an evolving "living document," which guides the agency's work through 2018 and identifies core mission areas, strategic priorities, goals and project areas.
"If the amendment is passed in 2014 and funded in 2015, we would evaluate it as a potential revenue source as part of our FY 2015-16 budget that begins Oct. 1, 2015," Ms. Monson noted.
County Councilwoman Patricia Northey said she recently spoke with a citizen who has fished along the banks of the St. Johns River for decades. He told her what once was a clear view to the sandy bottom has become completely obscured over the past 10 to 12 years, the result of "harmful algal bloom" most commonly caused by excess nutrients from fertilizers.
"There's pollution on the west side and pollution on the east side. It's terrible what we're doing to our water," Councilwoman Northey said in a phone interview. "We need to force the hand of the state legislators. The first thing is to sign the petition for this amendment. It's still about 300,000 (signatures) short."
Councilwoman Northey cited the deaths of more than 51 dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon since the first of this year, saying the die-off is one of the "real signs we are at the tipping point with our water.
"This is a clarion call for us to wake up and realize what we're doing to our water resources," she said. "And you know what? There is no more. I don't know why we aren't more concerned."
Attorney and former Volusia County Council member Clay Henderson, who has long been associated with environmental policy in Florida, is part of the team that wrote the amendment. He serves as counsel to Florida's Water and Land Legacy Committee, and defended the amendment before the Supreme Court.
"He is my environmental mentor," Councilwoman Northey said.
"Once the amendment is on the ballot, people will support it," she added.