by Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
Florida could bond up to $800 million — two-thirds the amount previously sought by the Senate — to speed construction of a reservoir intended to help clean South Florida waterways, under a compromise measure heading to Gov. Rick Scott.
The governor’s office Tuesday noted his support for the water-storager plan on Tuesday, but also that lawmakers haven’t approved his request for $200 million to speed repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee.
“Governor Scott has been clear that he supports storage south of Lake Okeechobee in the A2 Reservoir and is glad the Legislature passed a bill which helps address the problems surrounding Lake Okeechobee and benefits Florida’s environment,” Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said in a statement. “However, this is only part of the solution. The Legislature should include $200 million in the budget to help fix the Herbert Hoover Dike — a project which President Trump has already committed federal funding to.”
The House, whose Republican leaders have opposed running up debt through bonding, voted 99-19 on Tuesday to approve a negotiated version of the bill (SB 10), a key priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. The bill is aimed at reducing the recurrence of toxic algae outbreaks that have impacted Negron’s Treasure Coast district.
The Senate voted 33-0 a short time later on the proposal. The issue had been controversial for much of the legislation session, at least in part because of an initial version potential impact on farmland.
“This legislation provides a clear plan to address this plague on our communities in a manner that respects the interests of the agricultural community and private landowners,” Negron said.
Treasure Coast residents blame polluted water releases from the lake for the algae outbreaks.
“This is our continuing efforts, members, to solve the problems that have been there for years, that are the result of many, many years of not addressing the problem and addressing it perhaps in the wrong way,” Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said, “We’re now on the right track.”
The proposal, which reflects a number of changes sought by the House and which anticipates the federal government agreeing to pay half the costs for the reservoir, also caps annual state funding at $64 million, down from a proposed $100 million.
Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who voted for the proposal, said water issues won’t be resolved until pollutants that enter the lake from Central Florida are addressed.
Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, said politicians are again playing hydrologists and engineers rather than looking at issues such as northern water storage or the need to convert septic tanks to sewer systems.
“We don’t fund like we should to help the people in Martin County, who by the way wanted to tax themselves to hook up to (sewers),” said Edwards, who voted against the bill. “The local government fought back and so no, why do we want to encourage growth?”
The annual money and the use of bonding were among several changes hammered out as part of budget negotiations between Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.
Negron’s initial reservoir proposal once carried a $2.4 billion price tag when the focus was to acquire existing farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
The proposal now seeks to accelerate plans for the C-51 reservoir — part of a larger ongoing Everglades project effort called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP — to clean water that can be sent toward Florida Bay.
Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals Corp., called the bill approved Tuesday “a significant transformation from the original anti-farmer bill.”
“The initial proposal could have threatened existing Everglades restoration plans, but this most recent version uses science-based research to continue the construction of CERP projects,” Cantens, a former House member, said in a prepared statement.
The Everglades Foundation, which has been a key supporter of the reservoir, called the votes “momentous.”
“The many voices that came to the table this session — anglers, realtors, business and community leaders, and people who want the best for their state — were heard with the final bipartisan passage of SB 10, a positive and science-based step toward the restoration of America’s Everglades,” said foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.
The initial proposal would have directed 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” were not found.
To make the proposal more acceptable to farmers, residents and politicians south of the lake, the plan was redrawn to lower the costs and the bonding amounts.
With those changes, the focus would be on creating a deeper reservoir on state-owned land. Also, it would support a number of economic development projects in the Glades region, including an expansion at the Airglades Airport in Clewiston and an inland port in western Palm Beach County.
Keith Wedgworth of the EAA Farmers called the compromise “common sense.”
“Fortunately, they ignored an ill-intentioned, flawed plan championed by the anti-farmer Everglades Foundation and rewrote Senate Bill 10 to protect our private property,” Wedgworth said.
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