By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 2, 2017……… It is “highly unlikely” Florida will get federal officials to turn over control of water releases from Lake Okeechobee, and the state will not get repaid if it advances money to fix the lake’s Herbert Hoover Dike, Senate President Joe Negron advised senators on Thursday.
But Negron, R-Stuart, said the federal government may reprioritize a project list for Everglades restoration if Florida approves its portion of Negron’s $2.4 billion proposal to build a 60,000-acre reservoir atop mostly sugar-industry farmland south of the lake. Negron’s proposal is aimed at reducing harmful releases from the lake into estuaries to the east and west.
“Under both the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), redirecting damaging Lake Okeechobee discharges southward to improve the flow, timing, and distribution of water through the Everglades has already been authorized,” Negron wrote after meetings this week in Washington, D.C. “The issue is not if we will have additional southern storage, it is when and where.”
Negron’s proposal (SB 10), sponsored by Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has started moving in the Senate but has met skepticism in the House.
The bill, intended to protect the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, proposes that the state bond $100 million a year through money voters approved in a 2014 constitutional amendment aimed at land and water conservation.
Last week, House Government Accountability Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said advancing Negron’s proposed reservoir 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, House leaders have expressed little appetite for issuing bonds to finance Negron’s proposal, which has drawn strong opposition from farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area, along with many residents and politicians south of the lake.
EAA Farmers spokeswoman Danielle Alvarez issued a statement Thursday urging Negron to consider other solutions to reduce water discharges from the lake, including storage and treatment of water before it enters the lake from the north.
“It has been made clear that any plan to acquire more land south of the lake would be nothing more than an anti-farmer, job-killing land grab,” Alvarez said.
Tammy Jackson-Moore, Pahokee’s deputy city manager representing Guardians of the Glades, an organization representing Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay, also took issue with Negron.
“It is disheartening that Sen. Negron is willing to spend billions of dollars for his coastal constituents but is unwilling to expedite dike repairs for the safety and protection of his constituents south of the lake,” Jackson-Moore said in a prepared statement.
Negron attended President Donald Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday as a guest of Sen. Marco Rubio. While in Washington, he said he discussed lake releases and the reservoir proposal with Rubio, Sen. Bill Nelson, other members of Congress and “high-level” representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Army Corps oversees the ongoing rehabilitation of the dike and the water releases. Negron said in the letter to state senators that getting Congress to turn over the water-release responsibility to Florida is “highly unlikely.”
But Negron was more optimistic about getting the federal government to rearrange its list of Everglades restoration projects if state lawmakers back the reservoir proposal.
“If the Florida Legislature approves and funds additional water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, the Army Corps of Engineers will reevaluate the order of priority in the 2016 Integrated Delivery Schedule,” Negron wrote. “Florida is a partner in Everglades restoration, and its decisions influence and impact federal participation in the 50-50 matching program.”
Meanwhile, Negron’s note also addressed a bill (SB 810) proposed by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that would lead to the state providing an interest-free loan or advance to the federal government to complete repairs to the dike.
But Negron wrote that the state would not get repaid if it fronted the money.
“The federal government will not repay the money to Florida,” Negron wrote. “We will have simply spent hundreds of millions of dollars of general revenue funds on what is unquestionably a federal responsibility.”