October 20, 2017
As Lake O discharges continue, activists demand progress on reservoir
By: Gil Smart
As disgusting brown water lapped the shores of the St. Lucie River and Martin County beaches last Thursday morning, a boyish-looking attorney strode to the podium at Indian River State College's Chastain Campus in Stuart and politely asked state Sen. Joe Negron a question:
Are we actually going to get this blasted reservoir or what?
Not in so many words, of course. But the attorney, Alex Gillen of the Bullsugar Alliance, was voicing concerns his group and others have begun to raise in recent weeks, as yet another round of Lake Okeechobee discharges have pounded our estuaries:
It's all fine and good to say you're going to build a reservoir south of Lake O, as authorized in Negron's Senate Bill 10 last year.
But the devil's in the details.
Specifically, noted Gillen, the South Florida Water Management District is supposed to run computer modeling showing how much land will be needed; when’s that going to be completed, he asked, and is the district going to make it public?
Gillen asked if Negron planned public hearings on the project. And how, he wondered, will the reservoir actually be used. How much water will be sent to the Everglades, and how much will be reserved for agriculture?
Negron listened cordially, but when Gillen was done he seemed a little miffed at the suggestion the reservoir could remain a pipe dream.
"This is not a plan, it's not a theoretical construct," he said. "This is an actual reservoir that’s been approved ...(and) our part of the project is 100 percent funded,” he said.
Yes, Negron said, there will be hearings in both the House and Senate, and the water management district is "aggressively implementing" the plan.
Gillen liked what he heard, but was concerned he didn't hear enough.
It's "encouraging" Negron has planned hearings, he said. But the key to those meetings — the key to the reservoir plan itself — is the modeling.
"The modeling will determine how much treatment land is necessary so that the reservoir can be dynamic, cleaning and sending water south during the rainy season," said Gillen in a subsequent email. "Without sufficient land for treatment, the reservoir will be unable to send water south, and if it can't go south, it means more discharges."
Water management system spokesman Randy Smith said the modeling is in progress and "of course" will be made public.
"Public input is a major part of the planning process," he said.
Does that mean results from the modeling will be unveiled at those meetings? I didn't hear back from Smith on that question by press time. But stay tuned.
Bullsugar and other groups are smart to keep the pressure on. There still are plenty of powerful interests that aren't real keen on the reservoir. And as Bullsugar noted in a recent blog post, if they stall long enough, the next state government — one without Negron as Senate President — "is unlikely to push for progress."
So all opponents really have to do is play for time.
Negron, at least, appears to realize this. This project will be his legacy. If it gets built (and I can practically hear him bristling at the "if"), and it leads to cleaner water, he'll be remembered as something akin to a hero. Someone who, finally, made a dent in the problem.
But the potential for this project to get tangled in and strangled by red tape and bureaucracy is immense. Again, Negron appears to realize this; Gillen and Bullsugar, reminded him.
And I'm sure it won't be the last time they do so.
For however much momentum the reservoir project had last year, it needs to be maintained.
All you have to do is take a stroll by those disgusting brown waters to see what happens if it isn't.