TALLAHASSEE — After just days into the Florida Legislature’s 2017 session, a $2.4 billion plan orchestrated by state Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to purchase 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee to store more water for the Everglades and Florida Bay grew exponentially.
Introduced at the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources meeting last week, the heavily-amended Senate Bill 10 is now a $3.3 billion plan that would cover the original land purchase for water storage as well as provide $35 million for water projects along the St. John’s River, $20 million for septic tank conversions to sewer systems near Lake Okeechobee and $2 million for water projects in the Florida Keys, among other additions. It would also set up a revolving loan fund for additional water storage projects and provide water reuse funding.
“Normally when the governor issues a state of emergency some act of God has occurred,” state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and sponsor of the bill, said at the March 8 meeting. “This is something that was not an act of God. We did this to ourselves.”
Last summer, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency after toxic algae overtook the St. Lucie waterway along the Treasure Coast due to harmful water discharges from the lake. And in summer 2015, the freshwater-starved Florida Bay suffered a massive seagrass die-off during a period of drought that wiped out a documented 22,000 acres in its northeastern portion. Neither has yet to fully recover.
The Senate subcommittee voted 5-1 in favor of the newly-worded bill. State Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens, who wanted more economic support for any agricultural workers displaced by the land purchase, was the lone dissenter. The bill is now set to go before the Senate’s Committee on Appropriations at a yet-to-be-determined date.
“A water crisis anywhere in Florida is a water crisis everywhere in Florida,” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg in a statement following the meeting. “Water problems are not exclusive to Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. We’re seeing water issues statewide from Florida Bay and Everglades all the way up to the St. John’s River and Apalachicola Bay.”
The Florida House of Representatives has yet to review SB 10’s companion bill, HB 761. It was initially referred to the House’s Natural Resources and Public Lands Subcommittee late last month. State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, who chairs that subcommittee, told the Free Press last week that the revised bill didn’t make the March 14 meeting.
Raschein said the amended Senate bill has its pros and cons.
“There’s definitely more skin in the game,” Raschein said. “But it’s also more expensive, and increasing the price tag doesn’t really help its chances [of gaining Senate, House and Gov. Scott approval].”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has said he would oppose bonding for water projects, since the issuance of bonds would require debt service.
In January, Bradley filed SB 10 in an effort to help reduce the harmful water discharges from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Instead, fresh water from the lake would be sent to the southern reservior where it would be scrubbed clean of nutrients that have plagued the estuaries with algae blooms. It would then be sent into the Everglades to keep Florida Bay from becoming too salty.
The Senate bill doesn’t identify the 60,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area that would be purchased for the water storage reservoir but requires the South Florida Water Management District to make offers to willing sellers.
If the district fails to acquire the 60,000 acres by Dec. 31, 2017, then it must move forward a month later with an option to purchase more than double that amount in the EAA as spelled out in an agreement forged in 2010 between former Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sugar Corp.
U.S. Sugar has since tried to back away from that deal, and water district board members, who are appointees of Scott, have expressed opposition to purchasing EAA land before 2020.
The district has noted that the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which it is responsible for carrying out in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, doesn’t call for action on the southern water storage reservoir until the next decade.
Both the Senate and companion House bills still have to pass through a handful of committees before making it to their respective floors.
Raschein said it will likely be a grudge match with the final product being a mish-mash of wants by both sides.
“Either way, though, it remains a priority for the Senate and House, and especially me,” Raschein said.