by Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
Senate President Joe Negron appeared willing Tuesday to look beyond sugar farmland to carry out his proposal to acquire 60,000 acres to reduce the flow of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into estuaries on both coasts.
The Stuart Republican, speaking to reporters and editors gathered at the Capitol for an annual Associated Press event, maintained his desire to buy land for a reservoir south of the lake to store and clean water.
Negron noted the need for a reservoir was backed in some form by environmental experts at recent Senate hearings. But with the $2.4 billion plan drawing staunch opposition from sugar growers, farmers, government officials representing inland communities and lawmakers from other parts of the state, Negron said the question is “when and where.”
“We’ve been talking about southern storage from Lake Okeechobee for 20 years. It’s not a new idea. It’s not a radical idea. It’s not an unusual idea. It’s an idea that at different points in time the agricultural industry has supported,” Negron said. “It’s just a matter of when and where. My view on when is now. And my view on where is, let’s have committee meetings and hearings, and get public input, and let’s make a decision and let the water management district select the best place.”
A Senate bill (SB 10), filed Thursday by Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, would require the state to exercise an option from a 2010 agreement on the sale of 60,000 acres from U.S. Sugar if “willing sellers” are not found for the land Negron is seeking.
The proposal could be difficult to pass without changes, and the prospects may improve little if a different location is considered for a reservoir.
Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said Tuesday his caucus hasn’t taken a position but that the land buy alone won’t solve the water issues across South Florida.
Negron wants to fund the project by bonding $100 million a year through money voters approved for land preservation in 2014. The federal government would have to approve half the money for the project.
House leaders have said they are opposed to bonding, and Gov. Rick Scott didn’t include funding for the land purchases in an $83.5 billion budget proposal released Tuesday.
The South Florida Water Management District — now headed by Pete Antonacci, who formerly served as Scott’s general counsel — voted in 2015 to terminate an option to buy 46,800 acres under the 2010 deal, with board members rejecting calls that the U.S. Sugar land was the only solution to cleaning South Florida waters.
After appearing before a Senate committee in early January, Antonacci said the state needs to focus first on completing storage areas that will help raise the water level in the Kissimmee River valley, reducing the flow into the lake from the north, and could use farmland it already owns south of the lake for the additional storage.
U.S. Sugar now calls the use of its land for Negron’s proposed reservoir “the most expensive and least effective idea with the longest timeline of all available options for reducing lake discharges.”
Also, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Tuesday at the AP event that he continues to oppose the state purchase of the targeted farm land, a position he’s held since the 2010 deal was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
“There are better ways to spend $2.5 billion for water policy in the state of Florida and Everglades restoration,” Putnam said. “One of the problems with the history of restoration over the past several decades has been that every time there is a new president or a new election of most anyone, everybody wants to change up the plan of work because they want credit for the groundbreaking instead of the ribbon cutting.”
Negron announced Monday that he was resigning from his job as an attorney with the Gunster Law Firm, which has a long history of representing U.S. Sugar. The Senate president said Tuesday his departure was to avoid a possible conflict of interest between his advocacy on the water issue and one of the firm’s biggest clients.
“The filing of the bill caused not only myself but also my law firm to talk about what is the highest ethics in this situation,” Negron said.
Negron denied that U.S. Sugar put pressure on Gunster to force his departure or that his exit was based on a letter last week from Scott to House Speaker Richard Corcoran proposing new ethics standards for lawmakers. Scott included in his letter a proposed prohibition on lawmakers taking jobs with firms that employ lobbyists.
Negron’s interest in the land deal has grown as his Stuart community has several times in the past couple of years been heavily impacted by toxic algae blooms. The problems came as water releases were increased to reduce stress on the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee.