Florida Keys News
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Fate of water storage bills uncertain

SOUTH FLORIDA — The Florida House of Representatives followed the Senate’s lead last week with the filing of a bill calling on the state to purchase 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee to store more freshwater for the Everglades and forestall harmful discharges from the lake to the east and west coasts.

But the state senator representing the Florida Keys has concerns about whether “politics” will scuttle the House’s bill.

“I support the bill completely,” state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, told the Free Press last Friday. “I don’t think the Senate will be the issue.”

She said a strong effort has emerged with both public and scientific support to get water storage south of the lake as quickly as possible. While there is heavy support in the Senate for this bill, according to Flores, she said getting the House on board will be a bit more complicated.

“It’s more political than policy there,” Flores said.

Last summer, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency after toxic green algae overtook the St. Lucie waterways along Florida’s Treasure Coast due to water releases from the lake. And in the summer of 2015, freshwater-starved Florida Bay at the southern end of the Everglades suffered a massive seagrass die-off during a period of drought that wiped out a documented 22,000 acres in its northeastern portion.

Late last month, state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, filed the SB 10 to help reduce those harmful freshwater discharges from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by storing water south of the lake during the wet months where it would be cleaned and funneled south to Everglades National Park during the dry months. 

Flores co-sponsored Bradley’s bill, which was approved 6-0 last week by the state Environmental Preservation and Conservation committee. That was its first test. It’s now under review by the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Last week, state Rep. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, filed a companion bill in the House.

Both bills have received praise from environmental groups such as the Everglades Foundation, a non-profit focused on restoring and protecting the South Florida ecosystem.

“This legislation will expedite a project to send Lake Okeechobee water south where it can be cleaned and sent to the Everglades and Florida Bay rather than destroying our coasts by sending it east and west,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a prepared statement.

Purchasing land for water storage north and south of Lake Okeechobee has always been a part of the state-federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which was authorized in 2000. 

Roadblocks have since emerged, however, including a decision by the South Florida Water Management District’s to not buy more land south of the lake that U.S. Sugar had previously agreed to sell to the state.

State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, who acknowledged more water storage is needed, was more circumspect as to where reservoirs should be built or whether she would support the proposed legislation. 

“We [the state] own many, many acres [north and south],” Raschein told the Free Press. “There is no silver bullet here, though.”

Raschein said the House would first take a “watch and wait” approach in regard to the Senate bill. She said it was too early to forecast the likelihood of the House bill getting a full hearing. 

Altman’s bill, HB 761, has yet to go before its first committee. Proposed bills must make it through the committee process before heading to the House and Senate floor for a vote. The Florida Legislature convenes in March. 

The National Academy of Sciences recently issued a report stating that at the current project pace, Everglades restoration, originally a 30-year plan, would take 100 years to complete.

bbowden@keysnews.com

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