Tampa Bay Times

April 4, 2017


Joe Negron offers compromise on key proposal, the Everglades reservoir

By Mary Ellen Klas




TALLAHASSEE Senate President Joe Negron on Tuesday filed a sweeping rewrite to his top priority of building a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee by abandoning plans to buy up to 60,000 acres of agricultural land and rely instead on state-owned sugar fields to store and clean water fed into Florida Bay.

Under the proposed amendment to SB 10, which will be presented to the Senate's budget committee today, state-owned land southwest of Belle Glade currently leased by Florida Crystals and Duda & Sons would be converted and used to create a 14-foot deep storage reservoir.

If that storage isn't enough, the measure leaves open the possibility that the South Florida Water Management District may purchase additional land, beginning in 2019, by bonding up to $1.2 billion.

The proposal reduces the total cost of the plan from $2.4 billion in state and federal funds to $1.5 billion. The state's share would be $750 million, which includes an additional $100 million in Legacy Florida funds, bringing the total amount from the documentary stamp tax earmarked by the 2014 Land Acquisition Trust Fund to $300 million. The federal government would be expected to match the remaining $750 million to pay for potential bonds and storage projects.

"We've listened to our constituents, our fellow citizens in the Glades and scientists," Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters. "We have been working to find the right balance between the goals we have and addressing concerns of fellow citizens in the Glades community."

Negron's move is a signal that he faced a steep climb to pass the proposal in his own chamber. The changes attempt to counter some of the most effective arguments used by the sugar industry, which was aggressively opposing it. Although Negron's proposals had support from many Senate Republicans, Democrats in both the House and Senate were opposed, and House leaders were prepared to derail it.

Residents of the region complained loss of farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area could force the closure of a sugar mill and dramatically hurt the economy, where the unemployment rate is already in double digits.

To address those concerns, the Senate plan includes additional economic development and job-training programs to the communities in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area. Among the projects identified: the Airglades Airport in Hendry County, the development of an inland port in Palm Beach County and several infrastructure projects.

Negron said he hopes the Senate's willingness to compromise sends a signal to House leaders to reconsider their opposition.

"Just as we're making an effort to address their concerns, the House also has an obligation to address our concerns," he said.

The plan calls for purchasing at least 3,800 acres of private land adjacent to those parcels for additional storage, land the state bought in 1999 from the Talisman family farms. The state would also allow another 3,000 acres owned by the state and farmed by state inmates under the PRIDE program to be swapped with Florida Crystals, or other interested growers.

The South Florida Water Management District, which opposed Negron's original plan, would be required to accelerate its planning schedule for Everglades restoration from 2021 to 2018.

The change increases the district's responsibility to address water quality issues that emerged last year when polluted discharge from the lake led to toxic algae blooms on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Water regulators also would have to use a specific water quality model known as the Dynamic Model for Stormwater Treatment Areas and, if the water in the reservoir violates water quality standards, the district must come up with a plan to purchase additional land from "willing sellers."

"I can't say they're on board with this proposal, but they are obviously going to be in the driver's seat," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who worked with Gov. Rick Scott's office to get the water district to provide technical assistance.

A U.S. Sugar spokeswoman said the amendment made significant progress, but there were still significant concerns related to "arbitrary timelines for the southern storage reservoir."

Florida Crystals could not be reached.

"This amendment gets us one step closer to having a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, a project that's been contemplated for 17 years," said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. "After experiencing 242 days of a water emergency in 2016 that saw a toxic algae bloom on the east and west coasts, we're moving in a direction to store significant water south of the lake and, more importantly, direct clean water to Florida Bay."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas