April 5, 2017
Lake Okeechobee reservoir bill clears Florida Senate Appropriations Committee
By Isadora Rangel
TALLAHASSEE ó A bill to build a reservoir to curb Lake Okeechobee discharges cleared the Senate budget committee Wednesday, its final stop before a full Senate vote.
Facing opposition to his top priority, Florida Senate President Negron scaled back the bill Tuesday to garner support from fellow Republicans before sending it to the House. Those changes also earned him backing from Democrats worried taking agricultural land out of production would kill jobs in the impoverished Glades communities south of the lake.
Negron said he expects the reservoir to be operating in about four years.
Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, the only senator who voted against the bill in its previous committee stop, said he changed his mind after Negron added provisions to help train displaced agricultural workers and boost economic development in the Glades. He also applauded Negron for visiting Pahokee last month to hear from its residents.
The Senate committee room on Wednesday was packed with dozens of Negron supporters, as well as Glades residents wearing T-shirts that read "#OurLivesMatterToo."
The Senate is expected to pass Senate Bill 10, but a vote hasn't been scheduled. Negron then will face a steeper climb negotiating with the House to greenlight his proposal. With the House version of the bill stalled, Speaker Richard Corcoran has said he's waiting to see what the Senate will pass before deciding whether to back Negron.
It's unclear whether the sugar industry is completely on board with the bill. U.S. Sugar Corp. called the overhaul "significant progress" but said Tuesday it's concerned the timeline the measure creates for building the reservoir would be in conflict with other Everglades restoration projects. Negron removed a provision to force the state to execute a 2010 contract with the company to buy 153,000 acres if it couldn't find willing sellers for other lands. The company isn't willing to sell.
"They (sugar) havenít come out (in opposition), but the feeling is still there," said budget chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "They are not 100 percent on board with us."
Instead of buying 60,000 acres from farmers, the bill now would use 14,000 acres the state owns and leases to Florida Crystals until 2019, and complement that with smaller private land purchases, swaps with private owners and other existing state lands leased to farmers. The bill makes it clear farmers have to agree to break the leases and forcing them to sell through eminent domain isn't an option.
That cut the project cost, split between the state and federal government, from $2.4 billion to $1.5 billion. The Legislature would allocate $64 million this year and after the second year would have the ability to borrow up to $1.2 billion. That doesn't mean the project would require that much money or even need borrowing, which Corcoran opposes, Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said. The state probably has enough money available to pay for the reservoir with cash, Draper said.
A shallow reservoir is planned on the 14,000-acre parcel known as A-2. The state would deepen it to 14 feet to store 240,000 acre-feet of excess lake water. Water managers could use an adjacent reservoir called A-1 that now cleans Everglades-bound water to store an additional 120,000 acre-feet. More land likely would be needed to clean the water once it leaves the reservoir to meet phosphorus pollution standards in the Everglades, bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley said.
While the district would determine through computer modeling how much more land it would need and how to obtain it ó and report that to the Legislature by January ó Bradley said he doesn't expect a lot of agricultural land would be taken out of production.
"It's science thatís going to drive what (land) we need and where we need it," said Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
Despite voting for the bill, Sen. David Simmons said instead of building a reservoir, the Legislature should expedite work to strengthen the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake O to hold more water so less gets discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. Only after that can the state and the Army Corps of Engineers determine how much more storage is needed south and north.
Simmons proposed an amendment that would direct the water district to help the Corps speed up ongoing repairs of the dike, negotiate revising the schedule for discharges and begin planning storage north of the lake. He withdrew the amendment, which contained language from a bill he filed this year opposed by Negron, who said Simmons' approach wouldn't reduce discharges as much as a southern reservoir.
"Let's go ahead and let's fix the damn dike," said Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.