Wink News

April 5, 2017


Revised Lake O reservoir plan clears Senate committee

The News Service of Florida and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


CLEWISTON, Fla. A plan by a top Florida Republican to deal with toxic algae discharges is undergoing a major overhaul.

The Florida Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a revised version of a bill that would allow for a reservoir to be built south of Lake Okeechobee to absorb excess water blamed for blue-green algae and murky conditions in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Senate President Joe Negron and other Senate Republicans announced an amendment to the measure on Tuesday that would reduce the price tag from $2.4 billion to $1.5 billion — with half of the costs covered by the federal government — and shift the size and location for a water-storage project south of the lake.

The amendment is designed to make the bill more palatable to state House leaders and people living south of Lake Okeechobee. A House budget proposal released last week contained no money for the project.

Large farmers in the region, including powerful players in the sugar industry, opposed Negron’s initial plan. U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said the proposed amendment improves the bill, but “significant concerns” remains over “arbitrary timelines” for the reservoir.

“The decision to no longer take 60,000 to 153,000 acres of farmland out of production is a positive step forward,” Sanchez said in a prepared statement.

The revised bill also supports economic development in communities around the lake.

A loss of farm lands could lead to major job losses and “a amass exodus of families,” said Clewiston Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Hillary Hyslope, who urged the legislature to find a solution amenable to all sides.

Negron said the changes seek “a delicate balance” between the needs of the state and landowners, who along with Glades-area residents and politicians have been highly critical of the reservoir plan.

“The goal has always been to use the amount of land that is necessary to create 120 billion gallons of (southern) storage,” Negron said.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said he knew it would have to “evolve” as the lawmakers heard from residents, farmers and people on the coast.

“The amendment, I think, represents the Senate’s position and it’s a huge step in this process,” Bradley said.

The amendment proposes $64 million for the project next fiscal year but delays for a year plans to increase the state’s share of the project through bonding, a form of debt that is opposed by House leaders and Scott.

Money would come from the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund and grow to $100 million a year that could be used for bonding.

Also, instead of first trying to find willing sellers from among farmers for a 60,000-acre reservoir, the proposal would initially use land already in state hands for deep-water storage, reducing the footprint with the Everglades Agricultural Area.

“We do not think anymore ag land should be sacrificed,” Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner said. “We believe the state has the land, and if they’re willing sellers for additional lands, then I think that’s wonderful.”

It would be up to the South Florida Water Management District to determine the best layout for the storage, to determine how much additional land may still need to be acquired through purchase, allowing existing leases to expire or via land swaps.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he spoke to Scott last week, asking for some help with the water-management district.

“I can’t say they’re on board with this proposal, but they are obviously going to be in the driver’s seat in terms of executing it,” Latvala said of the district.

Negron said additional land will be needed.

“We’ll see how ultimately things move forward,” Negron said. “All of us are committed to doing this in a way that’s scientifically sound.”

The amendment would prohibit the district from using eminent domain to acquire the land.

The proposal also would encourage economic development in the Everglades Agricultural Area through training programs, support for expansion at the Airglades Airport in Clewiston and plans for an inland port in Palm Beach County.

The Everglades Foundation, which has been a proponent of Negron’s proposal, quickly gave its support to the changes.

“President Negron’s amendment moves us closer than ever before to our goals of greater water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, massive reductions of algae-causing discharges and improvements in the quality of water entering the Everglades and Florida Bay,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a release.

The News Service of Florida and The Associated Press contributed to this report.