A public opinion poll on the BP Oil spill sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership finds that about 74 percent of the voters in Florida’s Gulf coast counties want to see the funding that results from the BP spill settlement invested in natural system restoration. This finding complements the results of last fall’s ballot on Amendment 1 that won with a 75 percent majority of the state’s voters. Bottom line: Floridians care deeply about their environment.
We have a unique opportunity to realize their hopes with the effective use of funds that have been authorized by the oil spill settlement and the voters.
The landmark BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement and passage of Florida’s Amendment 1 means there will be significant funding designated for protecting, restoring and managing Florida’s environment for many years. With a nearly $3.25 billion share from the BP settlement and an estimated $10 billion over the next 20 years generated by Amendment 1, we must develop a long-term, comprehensive, and science-based plan for how to wisely invest in conservation of our natural resources.
This is our opportunity to ensure the productivity of the Gulf, sustain Florida’s lands and waters, and support the communities and economies that depend on these resources.
While determining specific allocations of these resources will be difficult, the certainty is that there is an unprecedented amount of funding now dedicated for Florida’s natural resources. This situation carries the responsibility and opportunity for collaboration among all levels of government and with the private sector to identify common goals and implement coordinated actions. Much of this planning has already been done, but complementary planning of the two funding sources will ensure the citizens of Florida get the “biggest bang for the buck.” Efficient use of these funds will require deliberate evaluation and phased allocations over a clear timeframe, so that agencies and others are assured of sufficient funding for multi-year projects.
Accomplishing comprehensive planning for the use of Amendment 1 and oil spill funds will result in stretching both funding sources further and accelerate positive conservation outcomes for the entire state. We will never again have this opportunity. Meeting the intent of both funding sources requires:
▪ Strategic protection and management of land to protect and improve our waters, provide outdoor recreation, support tourism, sustain Florida’s traditional natural resource industries such as agriculture and forestry, and ensure adequate, connected habitat for native plants and animals.
▪ Protection and restoration of our Aquatic Preserves and estuary, bay, and river habitats that are safe harbors for a diversity of recreational and economically important wildlife and plants that help clean our waters, and that buffer communities from storms and floods.
▪ Protection and restoration of water resources including this state’s exceptional springs and the international treasure that is the Everglades.
▪ Support of urban greenspaces to make cities more livable and resilient by naturally providing cooling, floodwater control, and water filtration services.
While Amendment 1 funds have already been allocated by the Legislature for this year, legislators have not yet developed a comprehensive plan for the use of future funds. Similarly, the time is now to ensure that expenditure of the oil spill settlement funding is coordinated and leveraged to achieve Gulf ecosystem restoration. For example, we could create an infrastructure fund for use by local governments along the Gulf to finance wastewater and stormwater infrastructure that would improve the water quality of our watersheds and estuaries.
Citizens across the state and in the Gulf understand that our lands, rivers, and estuaries work together as a system – independent of political boundaries. Community watershed planning across the Florida Panhandle and Springs Coast counties, facilitated by The Nature Conservancy, has energized these communities and is the foundation for possible new restoration programs. This effort, together with planning by the state and federal agencies, Florida’s Gulf counties, the National Estuary Programs in Southwest Florida and other groups, has identified many sound restoration and conservation projects that will help improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat in these regions.
Florida’s state and local governments can and should work with the federal agencies and the private sector to create coordinated, long-term, science-based action plans and priorities for investing the proceeds from both of these existing long-term funding sources. This will produce multiple tangible, quantifiable, and lasting benefits for the people of our state, including a stronger and more diverse economy, more resilience to natural disasters, and healthier natural and human communities.
These plans and this investment will be the blue and green framework around which Florida can continue to grow in harmony with the natural systems that sustain the quality of our lives and Florida’s overall prosperity.
If we seize this moment, we can be certain of one thing in an uncertain world — that future generations of Floridians will be grateful for our foresight.
Temperince Morgan is executive director for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.