In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrestled Florida’s meandering Kissimmee River into a straight, 52-mile-long, 30-foot-deep canal into Lake Okeechobee—a feat of engineering that became the source of many of the state’s current environmental problems.
The Army Corps and the state of Florida have spent decades, and hundreds of millions of dollars, restoring the river back to the winding waterway surrounded by marshy wetlands and wildlife.
Now, Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) wants to ensure that the river will remain protected, by giving it a “wild and scenic” designation—a label bestowed on less than one-quarter of 1% of U.S. rivers.
“It takes only tens of millions to screw it up and a billion to fix it,” Soto, who represents the district where the river flows, told Bloomberg Environment. “We are going to protect a river that we spent nearly a billion dollars fixing.”
It’s one of a slew of environmental initiatives that Soto is undertaking. His bill (H.R. 2566) to include pots and pans free of Teflon-like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice labeling program just advanced in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, and his measure (H.R. 4160) to revive funding to help states better manage and restore coral reefs has the backing of both parties in the House and Senate.
Soto, 41, sits on the Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees. As the first Puerto Rican member of Congress from Florida, he has asked the administration to publish requirements for disbursing recovery funds in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
Doing so could free up $16 billion in disaster recovery grants to help the island rebuild its grid, “a big funding mechanism to allow Puerto Rico to really meet their renewable goals,” Soto said.
Cattle Ranches, Citrus Farms in District
Soto is two-term congressman representing the 2,600-square mile district south of Orlando. His constituents include cattle ranchers, citrus farmers, and residents of Orlando’s suburbs.
The district also includes Disney’s Wilderness Preserve, a sprawling 11,500-acre reserve that the entertainment company converted from a cattle ranch to wetlands and other wildlife habitat.
His district leans Democratic, voting for Hillary Clinton 55% to 42% in 2016. His predecessor, former Rep. Alan Grayson (D), declined to run in 2016 in favor of an unsuccessful run for the Senate, and then tried to reclaim his congressional seat in 2018. Grayson is registered to run against Soto once more in the 2020 Democratic primary, though he has yet to actively campaign.
Soto is a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and a task force to develop bipartisan solutions to climate change. He hasn’t supported the Green New Deal resolution (H.Res. 109) to wean the country off fossil fuels in the next decade.
“Anything that he puts his name on I think that he tries his absolute level best to get it across the finish line,” said Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), who is working to pass a bill to aid research on coral reefs (H.R. 4160) with Soto. “He doesn’t just put his name on something to put it on there.”
Soto spent nearly a decade in Florida’s Legislature before coming to Congress. He has a 100% voting score from the League of Conservation Voters for both terms. Local environmentalists admire his hard-line stances against offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
When the Kissimmee was turned into a canal to control flooding, it allowed for manure and septic waste from neighboring cattle ranches and communities, rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, to flow more easily and in larger quantities into Lake Okeechobee, eventually spilling into canals out to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
“It’s almost as if as soon as they finished it, [the Army Corps] realized the problems that that had and realized that we need to undo this,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, vice president of water conservation for Audubon Florida, who has worked with Soto’s office on Everglades restoration.
He reintroduced a bill this Congress (H.R. 37) that would direct the Interior Department to study the Kissimmee for potential inclusion in the wild and scenic rivers program. That designation would ensure that the river would be preserved in its free-flowing condition and agencies would develop a management plan for its protection.
The river’s ecosystem is home to myriad species, including the endangered Everglade snail kite, and it plays an important role in stemming algae blooms and red tides that have become increasingly common on Florida’s beaches.
Folk Musician on the Side
The Kissimmee River bill hit some snags in the last Congress. Republicans, then in the majority, requested some changes. Those tweaks included prohibitions on removing existing development and requiring Congress—rather than Interior—to decide to designate the Kissimmee a wild and scenic river.
The Senate rejected those provisions, and the bill went nowhere. This time around, Soto expects the bill will clear both chambers without those strings attached.
In his down time, Soto sings and plays acoustic guitar in the Orange Creek Riders, a folk band with influences that include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and more current artists like Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes.
He’s played his original songs in the House Agriculture Committee hearing room, at the invitation of Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), a fellow musician in Congress.
“It’s like one of the few creative outlets to show that I’m not some political robot.” Soto said.
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