Compromise yields gift for the Everglades: 78 billion gallons 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

Months of negotiation and compromise over whether to build a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee ended in victory Tuesday for Senate President Joe Negron as the Florida House agreed to the Senate plan and sent the measure to the governor for his approval.

The proposal, SB 10, will cost the state and federal government $1.5 billion and will accelerate the state’s 20-year goal of storing water from the lake by using land the state owns, known as the A-2 parcel, as well as land swaps and purchases.

The House passed the measure 99-19, after it reduced the amount the state could bond for the project to $800 million, and the measure was then passed by the Senate 33-0.

The plan will create at least 240,000 acre feet of storage — 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. The measure will set in motion negotiations for the state to purchase land for the project from willing sellers, while prohibiting the use of eminent domain to force the sale.

Beginning in the 2017-18 fiscal year, the state will use $34 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire land or negotiate leases in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Another $30 million from the LATF will be used for the C51 reservoir project. In 2018-19, and every year thereafter, $100 million from the LATF will be used for the project.

Gov. Rick Scott has said he supports the plan and his office criticized the compromise for not including his request for $200 million to speed repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee. Negron responded that there was no room in the budget for the state to finance a federal responsibility.

For years, a storage reservoir south of the lake was resisted by the sugar industry, which objected to taking active farmland out of production to be used as a water storage or water cleansing marsh as part of the Everglades recovery plan mapped out in 1996.

But Negron, R-Stuart, and his Senate supporters persisted, agreeing to a scaled-back proposal that relies on using publicly owned land for the first phase of the reservoir before asking farmers to sell their land for the project.

His original project carried a $2.4 billion price tag and would have required 60,000 acres of active farmland, but he agreed to a $1.5 billion compromise that forces the South Florida Water Management District — which had repeated many of the sugar industry’s talking points in opposition to the measure — to shoulder the responsibility for making sure the project is completed.

Negron was motivated to accelerate the construction of a reservoir to avoid a repeat of the discharges that fouled the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers with toxic algae for months last year.

House leaders initially balked at Negron’s proposal and refused to give the House version of the bill a hearing. But the breakthrough came a day after the Senate approved House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s priority bill — a plan to put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot to approve a $25,000 expansion of the homestead exemption.

“I promised my constituents that we would dramatically expand southern storage by leveraging existing water infrastructure, and utilizing a combination of state, local, and private land,” Negron said in a statement. “After twenty years of talking about southern storage, this legislation establishes and fully funds a concrete plan to achieve this critical component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in a reasonable amount of time.”

Although environmental groups and the sugar industry each criticized pieces of the compromise, both sides hailed the breakthrough Tuesday.

Sugar industry executives, who mounted an aggressive opposition campaign that activated residents of the Glades who feared their jobs were threatened, praised the fact that Negron’s original plan was modified. Environmental activists, who orchestrated a campaign that featured businesses and residents from communities fouled by the toxic algae, called the bill’s passage historic.

“Farm families like mine were very concerned when government leaders, out of the blue, announced a plan to take our private land without even speaking to us,” said Keith Wedgworth of EAA Farmers Inc. “But, we were pleased legislators used common sense and listened when we shared the importance of our farmland for homegrown food.”

Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals Corporation, said “the initial proposal could have threatened existing Everglades restoration plans, but this most recent version uses science-based research to continue the construction of CERP projects.”

Eric Draper, Audubon Florida executive director, congratulated Negron and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, “for their perseverance and leadership” and said the projects “will reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries and send water south to nourish the Everglades.”

“Today is a momentous event,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the nonpartisan Everglades Foundation. “The many voices that came to the table this session — anglers, Realtors, business and community leaders, and people who want the best for their state — were heard with the final bipartisan passage of SB 10, a positive and science-based step toward the restoration of America’s Everglades.”

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas @miamiherald.com. Follow her @MaryEllenKlas