Plans for a $1.5 billion reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, questioned by sugar farmers and House leaders, received overwhelming Senate approval after nearly three hours of discussion and debate Wednesday.
A priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the bill (SB 10) seeks to lessen the recurrence of toxic green algae harming waterways in Negron’s east coast community.
The measure, which still needs House approval, was recently changed to whittle down its size and to use state-owned land. It also was expanded to include economic development efforts for the impoverished Glades region. The changes were aimed at garnering increased legislative support for the controversial plan.
“This isn’t a crazy idea, this isn’t like we’re trying to shoot water to the moon,” sponsor Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said of the bill. “This is something that has been contemplated for a very long time.”
The Senate voted 36-3 to support the proposal. Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, voted against the bill.
The plan stems, at least in part, from polluted water being discharged from Lake Okeechobee and fouling the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and rivers east and west of the lake. The reservoir would help move water to the south instead of having it go into the other waterways.
The proposal seeks to accelerate plans for the reservoir — part of a larger ongoing Everglades project effort called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan — to clean water that can be sent toward Florida Bay.
The Senate vote came after a series of Democratic amendments were rejected. Bradley said the amendments would have further diluted the proposal.
Clemens tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to keep the reservoir on its currently scheduled federal track. He said the proposal wasn’t about delaying the storage, but to keep it in a timeline outlined by scientists.
“This isn’t a debate about whether blue-green algae (in the nearby waterways) is an issue, obviously it’s a huge issue that we need to work on immediately,” Clemens said. “This is just a disagreement and an alternative plan that makes the most sense and listens to our scientific community.”
Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who worked with Negron and Bradley to recraft the bill last week, said Everglades restoration efforts have gone through a lot of false starts the past few decades and that the president has gotten the Senate to move on the issue.
“I think it’s real important to send this down to the House today with a nice solid, positive vote so they know we mean business about this issue,” Latvala said.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has said the changes made last week by Senate leaders improved the bill. But the House is opposed to part of the Senate proposal that would lead to issuing bonds in future years to help pay for the work.
“We’re not bonding. Bonding is an issue,” Corcoran said last week. “I didn’t say we’re going to go along with it (the Senate bill). I said it’s getting better and better.”
The bill would leave it up to the South Florida Water Management District to determine the best layout for the storage and to determine how much additional land may still need to be acquired through purchases, allowing existing leases to expire or via land swaps.
The state would not be allowed to use eminent domain to acquire additional land.
Sen. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat who voted for the bill, was among members describing their support as “lukewarm.”
He said removing land from agricultural production could exacerbate already high unemployment in the Glades region and that Martin County, with its “anti-development” history, needs to take some responsibility for the toxic water by failing to require sewer lines instead of septic tanks. Martin County includes Stuart and other parts of Negron’s district.
The changes made last week sought to address concerns of farmers, who adamantly opposed an initial proposal to use privately owned farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The farmers have pushed for more water storage north of Lake Okeechobee.
The plan also now would offer Glades-area residents training programs and support for expansion at the Airglades Airport in Clewiston and to begin planning an inland port in western Palm Beach County.
In revising the land use, the price tag on the Senate proposal was cut from $2.4 billion to $1.5 billion. The Senate anticipates the federal government would agree to cover half the reservoir cost, which for next fiscal year is proposed at $64 million in the state budget.
The current bill is seen as an improvement by sugar farmers.
“The bill has improved in that it does not take thousands of acres of productive, private farmland by using eminent domain and hopefully will not result in massive job losses in the communities around Lake Okeechobee — whether immediate or eventual,” said Ryan Duffy, spokesman for Florida Sugarcane Farmers. “We will continue to work with the House and Senate leadership to address these issues and to make the bill as comprehensive a solution as possible.”
The EAA Farmers, a group of large farmers south of the lake, called the Senate approval an acknowledgement of their position that the reservoir can be accomplished without first acquiring privately owned land.
“It is critical to Florida’s future to protect local agriculture, homegrown food and rural jobs,” said Danielle Alvarez, a spokeswoman for EAA Farmers.
The proposal has spurred a fight between farmers and the Everglades Foundation, which praised the Senate approval of the bill as “science-based step” to restore the Everglades.
“This plan will significantly reduce the amount of harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee that have long caused destruction along the east and west coasts of Florida,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a release. “It will also allow for a significant amount of water to be stored, cleaned and moved south into the Everglades and Florida Bay where it is needed.”