Negron’s Everglades rescue reservoir passes House, heads to governor

Environmentalists and growers hailed as a major victory the Florida House passage Tuesday of Senate President Joe Negron’s plan for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to filter and feed water to the parched River of Grass.

The House, whose Republican leaders had opposed running up debt through bonding, voted 99-19 on Tuesday to approve an amended version of the bill already passed by the Senate (SB 10), a key priority of Negron, R-Stuart. The bill is aimed at reducing the recurrence of toxic algae outbreaks that have impacted Negron’s district, which encompasses the Treasure Coast and northern Palm Beach County.

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The Senate then revoted on the measure because it had been amended by the House, approving it on a 33-0 vote. The issue had been controversial for much of the legislation session, at least in part because of an initial version’s potential impact on farmland.

“This legislation provides a clear plan to address this plague on our communities in a manner that respects the interests of the agricultural community and private landowners,” Negron said.

The measure is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott.

The initial proposal would have directed Scott and the Cabinet to exercise an option from a 2010 agreement signed by former Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sugar that requires the state to purchase 153,209 acres if “willing sellers” were not found.

To make the proposal more acceptable to farmers, residents and politicians south of the lake, the plan was redrawn to lower the costs and the bonding amounts.

With those changes, the focus would be on creating a deeper reservoir on state-owned land. Also, it would support a number of economic development projects in the Glades region, including an expansion at the Airglades Airport in Clewiston and an inland port in western Palm Beach County.

It also would allow Florida to bond up to $800 million — two-thirds the amount previously sought by the Senate — to speed construction of a reservoir, which is intended to help clean South Florida waterways.

The governor’s office Tuesday noted Scott’s support for the water-storage plan on Tuesday, but also that lawmakers haven’t approved his request for $200 million to speed repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee.

“Governor Scott has been clear that he supports storage south of Lake Okeechobee in the A2 Reservoir and is glad the Legislature passed a bill which helps address the problems surrounding Lake Okeechobee and benefits Florida’s environment,” Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said in a statement. “However, this is only part of the solution. The Legislature should include $200 million in the budget to help fix the Herbert Hoover Dike — a project which President Trump has already committed federal funding to.”

The proposal, which reflects a number of changes sought by the House and which anticipates the federal government agreeing to pay half the costs for the reservoir, also caps annual state funding at $64 million, down from a proposed $100 million.

The annual money and the use of bonding were among several changes hammered out as part of budget negotiations between Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.

Negron’s initial reservoir proposal once carried a $2.4 billion price tag when the focus was to acquire existing farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

The proposal now seeks to accelerate plans for the C-51 reservoir — part of a larger ongoing Everglades project effort called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP — to clean water that can be sent toward Florida Bay.

Environmental, agricultural and fishing groups praised the final version of the bill.

“With the passage of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan’s reservoir, which was approved and authorized by Congress in 2000, the legislature advances to the Governor the long-awaited and urgently-needed Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir legislation for his signature,” the Everglades Trust, led by former West Palm Beach Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, said in a statement Tuesday. “Today marks the most significant victory for Everglades restoration in more than two decades.”

“This is a very big day,” Mitchell said.

The vote also drew praise from U.S. Sugar and Florida Sugarcane Farmers, who strongly opposed earlier versions that could have required more farmland be taken out of production to build the reservoir.

“Senate Bill 10 has been greatly improved, takes essentially no privately owned farmland and even removes the threat of eminent domain,” said Judy Sanchez, senior director for corporate communications and public affairs for U.S. Sugar.

She added: “U.S. Sugar always supports solutions that are based on science, which, in this case shows the source of the water significantly impacting the coastal estuaries flows from north of Lake Okeechobee, not the south. Obviously, you’re going to have to build some solutions north of the lake to finally fix the discharge problem. We look forward to working with legislators in the future to get that done.”

Florida Sugarcane Farmers also issued a statement praising the lawmakers for not taking private farmland out of production.

“While not perfect, Senate Bill 10 will ensure the planned reservoir is eventually completed on existing state-owned land,” the farmers group said. “Having turned the page on buying additional land south of Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Legislature in a future session can focus on plans that will address the excess water and nutrients originating north of the lake, which science shows can reduce the frequency of discharges by more than 60 percent.”

Another farm owner organization, Everglades Agricultural Area Farmers Inc., found it worrying that government leaders had planned to take their land “without even speaking to us,” said member Keith Wedgworth. “Fortunately, they ignored an ill-intentioned, flawed plan championed by the anti-farmer Everglades Foundation and rewrote Senate Bill 10 to protect our private property,” he said. “We urge the Legislature to now focus on plans that will actually tackle water problems at their source, which is the only way to reduce discharges, clean pollution and avoid future algae blooms in the estuaries.”

Keep Florida Fishing, advocates for the American Sportfishing Association, also hailed passage of the plan, saying it would provide money to speed creation of the reservoir to reduce fertilizer-contaminated releases to coastal estuaries.

But Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, said politicians are again playing hydrologists and engineers rather than looking at issues such as northern water storage or the need to convert septic tanks to sewer systems.

“We don’t fund like we should to help the people in Martin County, who by the way wanted to tax themselves to hook up to septic tanks,” said Edwards, who voted against the bill. “The local government fought back and so no, why do we want to encourage growth?”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.

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