Water woes bubble up in Florida gubernatorial race
Florida’s environment is one factor that could help decide the state’s next governor.
After a first term focused on business and economic growth, Gov. Rick Scott is working to rebrand himself as an environmentalist.
Scott’s main opponent, Charlie Crist, is also burnishing his environmental credentials as he looks for votes in a race that’s too close to call.
Every morning, swimmers splash in the clear waters of Wekiwa Springs State Park just outside of Orlando.
Russell Bryant is a retired history professor, and he’s a regular at the springs.
"I am someone who swims every day at Wekiwa Springs because I think it's one of the world's most beautiful places to swim, and it's a great place to swim year round."
The daily ritual instills in him a sense of responsibility to the springs.
"I take care of the steps. Usually every two weeks I will scrub them down. Every day I'm here I pull things out of the water or I walk around and pull up garbage."
In April, Bryant organized a group to clean algae, fed by fertilizers and septic tanks runoff, from the springs.
Bryant says Florida's environment is its most valuable resource, like oil or coal, and he's glad it's gaining attention in the gubernatorial race.
In fact, the environment is shaping up as one of the defining issues of the election, as concerns grow about over-tapped aquifers and toxic runoff spoiling springs like this one.
In November, voters even will be asked to consider a state constitutional amendment – Amendment 1 – to put more funding toward land and water conservation.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott paid a visit to Wekiwa Springs in August, for a campaign event where he touted his newly unveiled environmental platform.
Scott says he's focusing on the environment now that the state's economy is better.
He’s calling for $1 billion over 10 years for springs and alternative water supplies.
He also wants more funding for Florida Forever, the state's land conservation program, and a position in the governor's office dedicated to Everglades restoration.
But he's vague on climate change and whether it poses a challenge to Florida.
"I don't think I'm qualified to make that decision. What I'm qualified to do is solve problems, and that's what I've done. Tell me the issue, and I've done my best to solve it whether it's the Everglades, whether it's the Keys, whether it's the Indian River Lagoon or whether it's the springs. That's what I've focused on."
Conservationists welcome the extra funding for waterways, but they’re also wary of the governor’s record.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, points to Scott’s vague position on climate change and a first term marked by drastic funding cuts for Florida Forever and the state's water management districts and the dismantling of the state's growth management agency.
Still, says Draper, the governor is following a long tradition in making the environment a key part of his platform.
"Florida has a history of governors that have a strong commitment to the environment. If you go back all the way to Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, onward through Reubin Askew and Bob Graham and even Jeb Bush, governors have been green."
And Draper says, compared to Rick Scott, Charlie Crist has the stronger environmental record as a former governor, state attorney general and state senator on issues like energy, land conservation and wildlife.
Crist brokered a billion-dollar deal when he was Florida's Republican governor in 2008, to buy out U.S. Sugar and put that land toward Everglades restoration.
The deal was downsized during the recession, but Crist says he wants to resurrect it.
He says he also wants to fully restore funding to Florida Forever and encourage more clean energy.
And he says climate change already is affecting Florida.
"When you go down to South Florida in particular, and you go to Miami Beach specifically and more specifically Alton Road, one of the major thoroughfares there, you can see even today when it's not raining it's flooding. And that tells you we're having rising sea levels as we sit here today."
Back at Wekiwa Springs, Russell Bryant says he plans to vote for the candidate who he believes will do the most for Florida's springs.
"Environmental issues are I would think the single most important issue in the future of Florida, protecting what we have and protecting our future. And that's why I tend to look at issues from an environmental point of view and which politicians are going to do the most to safeguard our future."