State Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, and state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, have each introduced bills calling for the $4 million appropriation.

Determined to find the money needed to stand up a Choctawhatchee Bay Estuary Program, the coalition established to run such an entity has solicited support from local legislators in seeking a state appropriation.

In fact, the Choctawhatchee Bay Estuary Coalition is not only requesting $2 million in state funds for itself, it has also asked for an additional $2 million that would allow its neighbors to the east to set up a St. Andrews Bay Estuary Program in Bay County.

“It made sense from a regional perspective,” said Jim Trifillio, Okaloosa County’s coastal management coordinator and a Choctawhatchee Bay Estuary Coalition member.

State Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, and state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, have each introduced bills calling for the $4 million appropriation.

The money would fund “a non-regulatory program that would work to improve the waters, habitats, living resources and economies of the Choctawhatchee and St. Andrews Bay watersheds,” according to a House bill summary.

Groups were organized on behalf of both bays well over a year ago as word got out that the Environmental Protection Agency was planning to open competition for a $2.2 million award to be dedicated toward establishing a Northwest Florida Estuary Program.

Both groups cobbled together support from conservation groups, chambers of commerce, political leaders and area residents and put together impressive applications for funding.

Ultimately, at the end of August, an organization representing the Pensacola Bay and Perdido Bay watersheds in Escambia County was announced as the winner of the EPA Estuary Program funding, but those who had fought for Choctawhatchee Bay and St. Andrews Bay vowed to find ways to somehow establish programs of their own.

Ponder said he believes a request for funding to begin the process of cleaning up two valuable Florida watersheds is worthy of strong consideration from both the State Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, who has vowed to make environmental spending a priority during this, his last legislative session as chief executive.

“Certainly if the governor puts a high priority on something it increases the chances of getting funded,” Ponder said.

Scott’s $1.7 billion environmental state spending proposal calls for targeting Florida springs, beaches and parks. Whether establishing estuary programs can gain the governor’s favor will have to be seen.

The appropriations’ proposal, even if it is not approved by the 2018 Legislature, will give those who see value in establishing estuary programs as a way of protecting and preserving Northwest Florida’s waters an opportunity to share ideas with state decision makers, Trifilio said.

“It will get us in front of these committees and people talking on behalf of estuary programs and how they’ve been proven to help the economy and the environment as well,” he said. “Historically, the biggest hurdle facing environmental causes is that they are thought of as the antithesis of helping the economy, when, in fact, it’s just the opposite. Most Florida economies are based on the environment in one way or another.”

According to the House bill summary, the $4 million allocation for the two bays would be expended to the benefit of eight Northwest Florida counties, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington.

All of those counties lie in one or both of the watersheds of Choctawhatchee Bay or St. Andrews Bay.

“These estuary programs are not bound by political boundaries,” Trifilio said.

If the $4 million is approved by the state it would be a one time appropriation. “Seed money,” Trifilio said, for organizations “designed to be self sufficient.”

Most of the allocated dollars, $3.1 million, would go toward hiring two executive directors, two lead scientists, and a “grants person,” according to the bill summary. Another $500,000 would be put toward developing a master plan.