In breakthrough for water plan, Gov. Scott endorses reservoir, faster fixes for dike

Gov. Rick Scott proposed Monday that Florida lend the federal government $200 million to accelerate repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee. This view of the dike from Pahokee is from August 2000.
Gov. Rick Scott proposed Monday that Florida lend the federal government $200 million to accelerate repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee. This view of the dike from Pahokee is from August 2000. AP

Gov. Rick Scott added some tension to the feud between the House and Senate over priority legislation Monday and endorsed Senate President Joe Negron’s proposal to build a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee on existing state lands to reduce the need to discharge polluted water into fragile estuaries.

“This is a big step toward protecting our pristine environment,” the governor said in a rare press conference on a pending legislative issue. “This additional storage, in conjunction with our currently planned projects around the lake, will help reduce harmful discharges to the estuaries in South Florida.”

But the governor also added a new condition, saying he also wants to find $200 million in state money to loan the federal government to accelerate improvements to the aging and vulnerable Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake so that it is completed in 2022 instead of 2025 — a priority of the sugar industry and his appointees to the South Florida Water Management District.

“I believe we have the resources to do both — to invest $200 million to fix the dike and I believe in the A2 storage reservoir,” Scott said, adding he would “work hard to get the money back” after lending it. “I’m tired of waiting for the federal government and I believe, in contrast to the Obama administration, I have a partner in the White House.”

Scott’s support is a breakthrough for Negron, who wants the state to spend $750 million to build the 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 bill, SB 10, was passed 36-3 in the Senate but has yet to get a hearing in the House, which did not schedule it as expected this week.

READ MORE: “Florida Senate agrees to give Everglades a 78-billion gallon drink of cleaner water”

The proposal has been resisted by the farming community in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the sugar industry, which doesn’t want active farm land taken out of production.

Negron said he appreciated the governor’s support but also said he doesn’t trust the federal government to pay the state back.

“There is no question that repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are needed to ensure the safety of communities south of the lake,” Negron said in a statement. “I do have some concern that if Florida advances funds to complete the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike, the federal government will not repay our state. I want to make sure we do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars of general revenue funds on what is unquestionably a federal responsibility.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who has shepherded the bill through the Senate, met with Scott early Monday and said the announcement was “a huge step forward in bringing this in for a landing.”

“The legislative process is about compromise, and I look at the governor’s statement today as nothing other than a positive development,” he said. “Everybody doesn’t get everything in this process. ... We now have the governor’s endorsement. All we need is our House partners to get on board.”

Bradley said it is unclear where the governor wants lawmakers to get the money for the loan and how the state will get paid back.

“That is a federal responsibility, of course, and it’s important the federal government maintain its responsibilities,” he said. “They own the dike, maintain the dike. They built the dike, and it is their responsibility.”

Scott added what Negron has emphasized, that money for the project not be taken from existing restoration projects.

“Also, it is important to me that whatever is passed does not impact any person’s job,” he said. And embracing the position of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the governor said: “We have dedicated record funding toward Everglades restoration, and I am confident we have the funds available to get these projects done without taking on more debt.”

Bradley said the Senate plan does not call for bonding in the first year but leaves open the door for bonding in future years to pay for land under the state’s existing bonding authority. Bradley said he wants to see how the governor envisions the plan working without that.

“We need to see the cash flow,” he said.

With three weeks to go this session, the comments were the first time Scott has been willing to weigh in on the proposal as the issue has pitted residents and farmers in the agricultural areas against residents and businesses in coastal communities that endured a summer of toxic algae last year.

Both sides commended the governor, with the sugar and agricultural industry highlighting his call for accelerated dike repairs and environmental groups encouraged by his endorsement of the southern reservoir.

“Anytime, with three weeks remaining and you can get a comment from the governor, that’s progress,” said Eric Eikenberg, executive director of the Everglades Foundation. “The good news is, this ties into a number of steps he’s already acted upon.”

He cited the governor’s support in 2011 for the water clean-up projects known as Restoration Strategies, and his signing the Legacy Florida bill last year to dedicate $200 million a year for land acquisition to avoid polluted discharges.

“Gov. Scott is exhibiting tremendous leadership,” said Ryan Duffy, spokesman for Florida Sugarcane Farmers. “...We support not taking any additional private farmland out of production and we support saving jobs. We will continue to work with legislative leaders to develop a bill we hope to be able to support.”

The governor’s political committee has accepted $425,000 from U.S. Sugar — and $300,000 from sugar companies since January. The governor said he has not spoken to the sugar industry about Negron’s proposal.

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas