Scott offers surprise solution to Lake Okeechobee pollution fight

Amid opposition to land sales, fears of job losses and legislative deadlock, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday offered a surprise solution to the waterway pollution from contaminated Lake Okeechobee discharges.

The governor asked state lawmakers to allocate $200 million to fix the Herbert Hoover Dike by 2022. And he called for using the A-2 reservoir to store water.

Doing both, he said would address nutrient overloads in rivers, canals and estuaries that have led to environmental disasters, such as the algae that washed up on some Martin County beaches this past summer.

“I am tired of waiting,” the governor said. “I want to keep solving this problem. I want to get this done.”

Nonetheless, with his proposal, the governor waded into a contentious issue.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, support a $2.4 billion plan to buy 60,000 acres of farm land for a water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. They say doing so would solve pollution in the coastal estuaries to the north.

If there aren’t enough willing land sellers, their legislation (SB 10) would seek to buy 153,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar Corp. under an option entered into in 2010.

That proposal has elicited significant pushback from a coalition of Everglades Agricultural Area farmers. The group, which formed in January, includes more than 60 mostly family owned farms and related businesses — farms that supply much of the nation’s winter vegetables, including sweet corn, radishes, green beans, celery, lettuce and leafy greens, as well as rice, grown in rotation with sugar cane. The farmers say the land acquisition would kill jobs.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran issued a statement saying the governor’s offer was “not a new development,” according to a News Service of Florida report.

“We’re just beginning initial budget negotiations now and this proposal, along with many others, will be the subject of House and Senate negotiations,” said Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.

Negron expressed a key reservation about the governor’s plan — namely, the state picking up the tab for something that should be paid for by the federal government.

“I want to make sure we do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars of (state) general revenue funds on what is unquestionably a federal responsibility,” Negron said in a statement.

Still, the EAA Farmers group said they were “pleased” on Monday.

“We are pleased to see this discussion shift from political propaganda to focus on fact-based solutions and real collaboration with the state’s federal partners,” said Danielle Alvarez, spokesperson for EAA Farmers, in a statement. “Like the governor, EAA farmers continue to support the comprehensive, science-based restoration blueprint found in CERP to address environmental preservation north, east, west and south of Lake Okeechobee in a way that protects local agriculture, homegrown food and rural jobs.”

Another group, Guardians of the Glades, also applauded the governor’s efforts.

“I listened to the governor’s press conference and am excited to hear him announce that he wants to help solve the problem,” said Tammy Jackson-Moore of the Guardians of the Glades. “We all know that the [dike] repairs are necessary for the safety of those of us that live in the Glades.”

She added that use of the A-2 as a reservoir is acceptable because it is already owned by the state. She said her organization’s concern was “taking privately owned lands, which meant the loss of thousands of jobs, when the state already owns more than 100,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

She said Guardians of the Glades would still like to “see a water project that captures and treats lands north of Lake O before it flows south into the Lake.”

Others were cautious. Kimberly Mitchell of the Everglades Trust said she wants to see the actual plan.

The warnings of potential job losses by massive buyouts of farm land for water reservoir was a factor in his decision to offer his plan, Scott said. The governor has been particularly focused on jobs and economic growth in his two terms, and in Monday’s announcement he stressed that preserving jobs was a priority along with leaving a “pristine environment for future generations.”

However, the governor defended the Negron legislation, nonetheless. “There is a lot about this bill that I like,” he said. The governor dismissed suggestions that there is a need to use bonds for money.

A spokesman for Florida Sugarcane Farmers applauded the governor’s move.

“In advocating for up to $200 million in dike repairs and using existing state-owned lands for future water projects, Gov. Scott has shown he understands the importance of protecting lives and saving jobs by taking such a responsible position,” said Ryan Duffy in a statement. “We hope Florida leaders will follow his lead and act to get the repairs expedited and use existing state-owned lands for Everglades restoration.”

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