by Jim Turner
The News Service of Florida
It appears doubtful the House will take up, as written, a $2.4 billion proposal by Senate President Joe Negron to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee to ease the impacts of polluted water releases into estuaries on the east and west coasts.
House Government Accountability Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said advancing Negron’s proposed 60,000-acre reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area — atop what is now farmland — would be “non-starter” if it displaces other projects, such as the $600 million C-43 reservoir along the Caloosahatchee River west of the lake.
Also, the House has little appetite to borrow money through bonding the state’s portion of the costs — the federal government would be asked to cover half — for Negron’s proposed land acquisition and reservoir construction.
“I’m dubious that the bill, as it’s currently structured, could actually be accomplished the way it’s envisioned,” said Caldwell, who brought U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., to a meeting Wednesday of the state House Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee.
Rooney, a Naples resident, advised the panel that his focus is getting federal lawmakers to commit money for what is known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. That plan, he said, doesn’t have Negron’s southern reservoir high on the priority list.
Negron has made a priority of the reservoir plan because of polluted water that has repeatedly been discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Moving lake water into the reservoir would help protect the estuaries.
Caldwell said the state House is still evaluating the southern reservoir proposal. Caldwell has directed the state House’s approach to 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment that requires the state to spend money on land and water preservation and maintenance.
“The House and Senate are going to see an EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area) storage feature built. What that size is, what land that’s on, whether or not we need to buy more land, those are decisions that need to take place, in my opinion, during a planning process, and currently that is scheduled to start in 2021,” Caldwell told reporters.
The Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee gave unanimous support this month to the Negron-backed measure (SB 10), which is opposed by farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area, along with many residents and politicians south of the lake.
The bill proposes the state bond $100 million a year through money voters approved in the 2014 constitutional amendment.
The Senate bill would also direct Gov. Rick 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” are not found for the land Negron is seeking.
Negron told The News Service of Florida last week that while there are “pockets of resistance,” the “idea enjoys widespread, scientific support.”
He expects the debate will continue to focus on where south of the lake the reservoir should be located and when it should be built.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for 20 years,” Negron said. “And I think in the end that we’ll get it accomplished.”
The proposal still has to get through two more committees before it could go to the full Senate during the legislative session that starts March 7. The House version (HB 761) by Rep. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing.
Meanwhile, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, has filed a proposal (SB 816) that would lead to the state offering a $1 billion interest-free loan to the federal government to speed up repair work on the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
Simmons believes if the federal government accepted the loan, the dike repairs could be completed in two to three years, rather than the near decade currently projected if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were to secure the $800 million estimated to finish the work.
Simmons has said allowing the lake to hold more water would reduce releases that have been blamed for the polluted water conditions in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Caldwell said there is no plan to turn the lake “into a deep water reservoir.” But getting the water level up to previous levels — not as high as Simmons is proposing — could reduce the freshwater releases, Caldwell said.
Rooney said he’s narrowly focused on the federal participation needed to finish the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects and hasn’t fully looked into the measure by Simmons.
“The complexity of the (entire Everglades) situation makes it all the more difficult to keep a united message that can be understood by appropriators in Congress,” Rooney said. “It competes with the other states that are vying for infrastructure money. We’re trying to talk about 68 projects, all parts of the lake.”