Florida Senate agrees to give Everglades a 78-billion gallon drink of cleaner water

Water full of algae laps along the Sewell’s Point shore on the St. Lucie River under an Ocean Boulevard bridge, Monday, June 27, 2016.
Water full of algae laps along the Sewell’s Point shore on the St. Lucie River under an Ocean Boulevard bridge, Monday, June 27, 2016. AP

After more than 20 years of mapping the need for a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Senate voted 36-3 Wednesday for an ambitious proposal that will set in motion the $1.5 billion project.

The proposal, SB 10, is a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and will use state and federal money to build a deep-water reservoir to store and clean water before it is released into the Everglades and to avoid toxic discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The proposal now moves to the House, where it will be woven into negotiations over the budget.

The plan will create at least 240,000 acre feet of storage — that’s about 78 billion gallons — south of the lake by converting 14,000 acres of state land now used as a shallow reservoir to build a deep-water reservoir. It accelerates the timeline for the reservoir and requires congressional approval. Half of the cost will be shared by the federal government because it is already on the list of projects intended to repair the ailing Everglades.

78 billion gallons is how much water, at the low end, this plan for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee will hold

“Southern storage is necessary to stop the toxic discharges and save the Everglades by giving it the clean water it so desperately needs,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the Senate sponsor of the bill, adding it took 20 years to reach this point “because it’s hard to do but anything that’s hard to do is worthwhile.”'

The Everglades may be in trouble, wilted by decades of flood control and facing growing risk from sea rise driven by climate change. If freshwater is not restored soon, there is a fear the region will begin a self-replicating cycle of decline.

The vote is a defeat for the sugar industry, which has has vigorously opposed the measure and used the threat of lost jobs for the economically challenged Glades community as a way to lineup initial opposition to the measure among legislators. The industry has worked for 20 years opposing efforts to remove vast tracts of land from the Everglades Agricultural Area and reduce the supply of sugar cane to their profitable mills.

Between 1994 and 2016, sugar companies steered $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns, according to an analysis by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau.

Despite that, all but three senators backed Negron’s priority bill. Voting no were Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Now is the time because we have the political will. The science is there. The science demands it, and that science matches the heart and desire to get something done.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the bill sponsor

In an email on Wednesday, the EAA Farmers said they oppose the bill because it is a “farmland grab” that “ignores science and real solutions.”

But proponents say those solutions have also failed to solve the problem and led to polluted discharges in 2016 that caused toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency.

“Now is the time because we have the political will,” Bradley said. “The science is there. The science demands it, and that science matches the heart and desire to get something done.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, noted the Everglades Forever Act, which was passed in 1994, first identified the need to build a southern storage reservoir.

“Here we are 23 years later and we’re still working on it,” he said. “There’s been a lot of plans, a lot of false starts. It’s ironic that the bill today is once again recommending the thing we started down the path for in 1998 and 1999.”

The plan the Senate approved Wednesday has been 23 years in the making, starting with the Everglades Forever Act of 1994.

In the last 15 years, regulators, legislators and governors supported repeated delays of strict water quality standards sought by the industry. They agreed to provisions that watered down attempts to use constitutional Amendment 1 to be used to buy farmland for Everglades cleanup. And legislators, as well as water management district officials, pushed clean-up projects on the periphery of the Everglades, not in the heart of the region where working farmland can be displaced.

Everglades Foundation wetland ecologist, Dr. Stephen Davis, explains the importance of the restoration of the Everglades natural flow and its importance.

But after the algae outbreaks led to a public health scare and prompted Florida comparisons to Flint, Michigan, Negron declared that he would use the force of his presidency to end the discharges and build the storage reservoir as his “No. 1 personal priority.”

Latvala commended Negron for showing leadership, “kicking us in the butt, getting us going” and urged the Senate to send it to the House “with a nice, positive vote.”

It was not an easy lift.

Negron’s initial proposal was to buy 60,000 acres of active farmland in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area and would have cost $2.4 billion to build the reservoir and purchase the land. But, amid opposition from the sugar industry and the Glades community, the Senate replaced it with a plan that would cost much less and use land the state already owns. The Senate also inserted a prohibition on the state’s using eminent domain to acquire any private lands for the project.

Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said she supported the bill because “there’s been a big transformation from the first day we sat down until today.”

Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, also commended the changes to the bill and wanted to see additional modifications, particularly as it relates to providing economic stimulus programs to the Glades community.

Sen. Kevin Radar, D-Boca Raton, said the problem was created by Martin County elected officials’ “lack of vision,” which allowed septic systems to pollute the lake but gave “lukewarm support for the bill.”

He added: “I don’t think this is the final version of the bill.”