FROM THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By JIM TURNER
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, August 9, 2016………. Lawmakers will be asked next year to approve bonding a big chunk of environmental preservation money to support the incoming Senate president’s desire to buy sugar farmland for water storage in the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee.
Sen. Joe Negron, whose Stuart community has been heavily impacted by toxic algae blooms resulting from water releases out of the lake, on Tuesday proposed a $2.4 billion state and federal plan to buy 60,000 acres of land that would be used to store and clean water and reduce releases into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.
“I’m 100 percent committed to getting this done in the Florida Legislature, and then we’ll work with other folks on that process,” Negron told reporters after announcing the proposal at the waterfront Flagler Place in downtown Stuart.
Negron appeared at the announcement with House members from the Treasure Coast, including Republican Reps. Debbie Mayfield of Vero Beach, Gayle Harrell of Stuart, and MaryLynn Magar of Tequesta and Democratic Rep. Larry Lee of Port St. Lucie. Still, the proposal may have a tougher battle during the 2017 legislative session in the House.
“Any proposal by President-designate Negron will be reviewed by the House with seriousness and respect,” incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to a constructive dialogue on this issue both within and between each chamber.”
The plan would require state lawmakers to bond $100 million annually from documentary-stamp tax revenue in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 to set aside money in the trust fund for 20 years to finance the purchase and preservation of state lands.
Negron, who is slated to become the Senate leader in November, admitted that such a funding request won’t be easy as “there are environmental problems everywhere in Florida.”
“There are problems in Biscayne Bay. There are problems in Apalachicola Bay,” Negron said. “There are problems in Tampa. The springs in the central part of our state. And I care about those things too.”
“We are in a competition. Money that is spent to build this reservoir can’t be spent twice,” Negron continued. “So the money that it’s going to cost to do this, it’s going to come from the limited funds that we have.”
Negron outlined two potential parcels within the Everglades Agricultural Area. Florida Crystals is the largest landowner in the targeted parcels, though U.S. Sugar Corp and Kings Ranch also own land in those areas.
He added that he hopes to have willing sellers rather than go the more-costly and time-consuming route of government acquisition through eminent domain. But Negron said he’s not limiting the search for land to those two areas.
Negron’s proposal is separate from a 2010 deal former Gov. Charlie Crist worked with U.S. Sugar Corp. in which the state paid $197 million for 26,800 acres. An option remains on the table for 153,200 acres.
Negron has already gotten support from groups such as the Everglades Foundation and Audubon, but he could have a hard time with people in the agricultural areas that rely on sugar farms.
Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor, a Democrat, said the proposal could hurt the economy in her agricultural community, which has one of the state’s highest unemployment rates.
“Taking 60,000 additional acres would shut down another sugar mill,” Taylor said in a prepared statement. “Not only would it threaten our economy, but it also isn’t supported by science. It’s disappointing that Sen. Negron has allowed the priorities of radical activists to become part of his plans as Senate president.”
Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said the proposal is about maintaining the state’s water infrastructure.
“These are massive projects that move millions and millions of gallons of water, but we don’t bat an eye when we build a new runway in Fort Lauderdale or a tunnel in Miami to connect PortMiami,” Eikenberg said. “The Everglades is the drinking water supply for a third of the population. It’s a no-brainer.”
Aliki Moncrief, director of the 2014 ballot initiative, said backers of what was known as Amendment 1 support the proposal to bond the trust fund money, something lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott have opposed in the past. However, she said they would prefer lawmakers redirect nearly $200 million a year that the Legislature allocated from the trust fund to cover staff operations.
“In general we support bonding for land acquisition, land conservation, protecting the Everglades and elsewhere in the state,” Moncrief said. “The bigger concern at this point is that nearly one-third of Amendment 1 money isn’t even going to eligible land conservation projects that voters had in mind when they supported the amendment.”
Negron’s proposal would require approval by the federal government, as he envisions a 50-50 funding split on the project, which he wants the state to oversee.
Eikenberg is confident federal lawmakers will understand the importance of maintaining the Everglades as a “national icon.”
“This would be just like if Yosemite (National Park) was in jeopardy or the Grand Canyon was somehow threatened, people would be going crazy and Congress would certainly act,” Eikenberg said.
Negron also has worked in the past to secure funding to lessen environmental damage in the region.
Negron was able to secure $231.9 million in 2014 for a number of South Florida water projects, including bridging a portion of the Tamiami Trail. That money came after the St. Lucie River estuary the prior year was inundated with nutrient-heavy waters released from Lake Okeechobee.
Earlier this year, he was behind an effort, known as Legacy Florida, which sets aside up to $200 million a year for the Everglades, $50 million annually for the state’s natural springs and $5 million each year for Lake Apopka from the 2014 Amendment 1 dollars.
Last month, as the algae bloom problems grew, Scott announced he is working on a recommendation for the 2017-2018 budget to help in the cleanup of the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River through a voluntary program that would encourage residents on septic systems to connect to sewer systems to “curb pollution that is currently entering into these water bodies.”
The proposal would require legislative approval. It also would require a 50-50 local government match for money to become available for construction of wastewater systems or to help property owners shift to sewers.