Contentious Everglades reservoir plan gets swift early approval but opposition grows

An alligator rests in the water inside a tree island in the Everglades near Tamiami Trail, Tuesday, February 7, 2017.
An alligator rests in the water inside a tree island in the Everglades near Tamiami Trail, Tuesday, February 7, 2017. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to build a $2.4 billion reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee passed its first test Tuesday, winning the unanimous support of a key Senate committee as opposition mounted.

The proposal, SB 10, would allow the state to issue $1.2 billion in bonds to purchase 60,000 acres of land to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir would reduce harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, using about $100 million of documentary stamp tax revenue every year for the next 20 years. Congress also would have to authorize the federal government to spend another $1.2 billion to complete the project.

“This is not a silver bullet,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the sponsor of the bill, but he called it a “good faith solution offered to address the real problem.”

The bill is a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose home community was rocked when harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee led to a toxic algae outbreak in 2016, prompting Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency along Florida’s Treasure Coast for more than three months.

READ MORE: Sugar growers to state: No sale on our farmland south of Lake Okeechobee

The proposed reservoir is expected to hold 120 billion gallons of water to offset future discharges from Lake Okeechobee. It would also store water during the wet season so that it can be sent south to hydrate the Everglades and Florida Bay during the dry season.

But not everyone agrees with the solution identified by environmentalists and now embraced by Senate leaders. Farmers, representing the largest landowners in the Everglades Agricultural Area where the reservoir would be built, told the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee that they will not willingly sell their land.

Two Democrats on the committee, Sen. Gary Farmer, of Fort Lauderdale, and Linda Stewart, of Orlando, raised doubts about the cause of the pollution-laded discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

“Sugar is being vilified in this whole thing,” Farmer said. “Sugar cleans a lot of that water before it goes into the lake.”

And residents from communities affected by the toxic algae discharges on the east and west coasts, and farmers and local officials from the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area testified before the committee with competing views of the plan’s potential economic impact.

Coastal residents told the committee that fishing and tourism were being irreparably harmed by the failure of the state to stop the emergency release of water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, while officials from Pahokee and Belle Glade warned that displacing active farm land would send their farm communities into a tailspin.

The pleas elicited a promise from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the Senate budget chairman, that the bill will include “an economic development component” to help the farming communities when the land is removed from active production.

“If we are going to help jobs in one direction, we are going to help jobs in another direction,” he said. “You have my assurance of that.”

Bradley also urged the groups to bring new ideas forward. “Now, all options are on the table,” he said, but he warned that delaying attempts to store water south of the lake was not one of them. “We will act,” he said.

One option that surfaced Tuesday is a proposal by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, which would shift responsibility of repairs of Lake Okeechobee’s Herbert Hoover dike from the federal Army Corps of Engineers to the state.

Under the bill being drafted by Simmons, Florida would offer the federal government a $1 billion interest-free loan to accelerate the repairs to the dike and rebuild it to raise the lake levels from the 15.5 feet currently allowed to up to 19 feet.

If the Army Corps refuses to do the work by 2020, the South Florida Water Management district would assume control of the dike, rebuild it to allow for additional water storage and, Simmons said, end the damaging discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

“We can stop the discharges by refortifying this dike — the plans are already in place,” Simmons said.

But, after the meeting, Bradley raised questions about the wisdom of having the state assume a federal responsibility.

“The Herbert Hoover dike right now is 100 percent a federal responsibility,” he said. “We have finite resources in the state of Florida and to repair the dike they’ve spent $800 million and it needs $800 million more” to make it safe to store water at the current levels.

“It’s an interesting discussion,” Bradley said. “I’m glad all ideas are on the table.” However, he did not see it as an alternative to storing water south of the lake.

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida said he tried and failed to talk Simmons out of his proposal.

“It’s a horrible idea,” he said. “The dike is one of the most dangerous dikes in the nation,” and having the state assume responsibility to raise water levels “is an easy sounding solution that actually doesn’t work.”

Jennifer Reynolds, a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in January that without the repairs “that dam is not safe for the people that live and work around the lake,” and whether the lake is used to hold more water for the purposes of Everglades restoration “is a separate issue.”

“We believe once the dike repairs are finished we should and will plan to conduct another study that looks at that,” she said.

The study is scheduled for 2022, when the dike repairs are complete, and will determine whether they can raise the water level safely without risking massive flooding in the surrounding communities, Reynolds said.

Meanwhile, the dike receives one fourth of all federal funding that goes into the corps’ national funding, she said, adding that the corps is engaged in preparing projects for storing water north of the lake.

“If we have a state partner with funding available on the state and federal side we could look at expediting” the projects, she told the Senate committee.

“This is a starting point but we need to have some alternatives from people who don’t like this bill,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Miles away in the marshes at the center of the debate, the powerful Everglades Foundation led an airboat tour Tuesday to push its position. A reservoir below the lake and north of sprawling stormwater treatment areas would offer solutions for both ends of the watershed: storage space for polluted lake water and, once clean, water to revive the wilted south end, struggling to survive largely on rainfall.

“These problems are all connected and the solution to that problem is to try to flow the water back to the south,” said foundation ecologist Steve Davis.

While critics of the reservoir have focused on efforts to increase storage north of the lake, Davis said that leaves South Florida out of the equation, failing to address persistent problems in the Biscayne and Florida bays. It also fails to deal with the vast water conservation areas, where last year’s wet winter drove up water levels and flooded hunting grounds used by the Miccosukee Tribe. Restoration, he said, has to occur in an “orchestrated” way that considers all the parts, and not just one problem at a time.

“You need the big picture,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas