With reports of algae blooms reported in the St. Johns River, former U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., is calling on the Florida Legislature to “reserve funds for North Florida waterways.”
Southerland, now the chairman of Stand Up North Florida (SUNF) which defines itself as a “grassroots coalition formed to protect the vital water resources of the region,” weighed in on the matter on Monday.
“Our waterways are the lifeblood of Florida,” said Southerland. “They are absolutely key to the health of our economy and to the high quality of life we enjoy. We urge the Legislature to give the same funding consideration to north Florida waterways like the St. Johns River as they have to building reservoirs and cleaning up the tributaries of South Florida.”
Southerland was joined by members of the SUNF board, including former Wakulla County Undersheriff Maurice Langston, the chairman of the Florida Council for Safe Communities.
“Time is running out in this year’s legislative session, but it’s also running out for North Florida residents who are being impacted by the growing algae blooms in the St. Johns River,” said Langston. “Residents in North Florida shouldn’t have to pay for the actions of folks further south. We need effective, commonsense solutions based on sound data, and we hope the Legislature does the right thing by taking steps to fund them.”
Southerland has grown increasingly vocal on issues impacting North Florida. Earlier this month, Southerland spoke before the state Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government about the region’s economic and environmental needs. The former congressman focused on how North Florida continues to recover from Hurricane Michael which slammed into the area six months ago.
“People in my county, citizens, an hour and a half from where you sit today, are still living in tents…it’s difficult to watch,” said Southerland. “”I love these people, and they are hurting, and our story must be told.”
Southerland told the subcommittee that the hurricane wiped out almost 3 million acres of timber in the Panhandle and Big Bend which cost the region $3 billion. He also noted more than two-thirds of homes in Panama City–69 percent–were damaged by the hurricane while Bay County schools lost 4,000 students. Southerland also stressed how the hurricane hurt the medical services in the area, noting that Bay County’s largest hospital laid off almost 1,000 people and 50 doctors have left the area.
Looking ahead, Southerland stressed that fires could pose a major problem to the area.
“Three weeks ago, we had our first fire. So after being knocked down, now we’re being burned,” he said. “Six hundred fifty acres burned in Bay County, and it hasn’t started getting warm yet. These are the challenges that we are facing. In spite of these damages, Congress has failed to act. I have to kick the body I was a part of. Politics make me sick when people are hurting.”
Turning to the environment, Southerland noted that North Florida is where most of the springs in the state are. However, he said, 95 percent of state conversation dollars are spent south of Orlando.
The former congressman also weighed in on infrastructure, calling for widening Highway 20.
With deep family ties in the area, Southerland worked in the private sector until 2010 when he defeated then U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla. After holding off Democrat Al Lawson in 2012, Southerland was defeated by Gwen Graham in 2014.
During his two terms in Congress, Southerland played a key role in the GOP caucus as a bridge between tea party conservatives and the Republican leadership.
Kevin Derby can be reached at Kevin.Derby@floridadaily.com.