Florida's River of Grass gets a conservation boost

The Everglades will receive $250 million in dedicated funding, protecting the habitat of more than 77 endangered or threatened species.  

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A creek runs into Shark River near Gunboat Island in Florida's Everglades National Park. The state has committed up to $200 million a year toward the park's conservation efforts.

The Everglades are about to get a $250 million boost.

On Thursday, known as Everglades Action Day to environmentalists, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill dubbed Legacy Florida, which will provide funding to Everglades conservation programs. The money comes from a 2014 constitutional amendment that redirected a portion of Florida's tax income toward conservation land. 

Under the new law, 25 percent of proceeds, or up to $200 million a year, must go to Everglades restoration projects. Another $50 million will be earmarked for projects to restore Florida's natural springs, and an additional $5 million will go to cleaning up Lake Apopka, northwest of Orlando.

"I want to thank the Florida Legislature for fulfilling the promise I made to create a dedicated source of funding to restore the Florida Everglades," Governor Scott said in a prepared statement.  

The Everglades, or River of Grass, are home to more than 77 endangered or threatened species, including manatees and alligators. It is one of the largest wetlands in the world, protecting 1.5 million acres of wilderness, in which the mix of fresh water and salt water creates an unusual biodiversity: "the only place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side," according to The Everglades Foundation. 

The law also requires that state officials give priority to those projects that reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee, Florida's largest lake. An unusually wet winter, helped in part by rains from the El Niño weather cycle, has filled Lake Okeechobee to the breaking point. Flooding has sent lake floodwaters creeping south and west, affecting tourism-dependent coastal communities.

The high waters have also put several animal species at risk, including deer and wading birds. In February, Scott declared a state of emergency for those counties most affected by Okeechobee’s flooding.

Much of the pollution that affects the Everglades comes from the sugar industry, which has dominated Florida since the 1960s and transformed the state's landscape. Recent conservation efforts have included controlling or reducing the number of invasive species in the region and restoring the Everglades' water quality.   

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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