State Politics

Negron offers compromise on Everglades reservoir — state-owned and leased land

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. Palm Beach Post/AP

Senate President Joe Negron on Tuesday filed a sweeping rewrite of his top priority legislation to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, abandoning plans to buy up to 60,000 acres of agriculture land and relying on more state-owned and state-leased sugar fields to store and clean water to be sent into Florida Bay.

Under the proposed amendment to SB 10, which will be presented Wednesday to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the state would convert state-owned land in the A-1 and A-2 parcels, currently being leased by Florida Crystals and Duda & Sons, and use it to create a 14-foot deep storage reservoir.

Audubon Florida Biologist Jerry Lorenz says a massive seagrass die-off shows why Florida's Everglades need to be fixed.

If that storage isn’t enough, the measure leaves open the possibility that the South Florida Water Management District may need to negotiate the purchase of additional land, beginning in 2019, by bonding up $1.2 billion.

The proposal reduces the total cost of the plan from $2.4 billion in state and federal funds, to $1.5 billion. The state’s share would be $750 million, which would include an additional $100 million in Legacy Florida funds, bringing the total amount from the documentary stamp tax earmarked by the 2014 Land Acquisition Trust Fund to $300 million. The federal government would be expected to match the remaining $750 million to pay for potential bonds and storage projects.

“We’ve listened to our constituents, our fellow citizens in the Glades, and scientists,” Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters. “We have been working to find the right balance between the goals we have and addressing concerns of fellow citizens in the Glades community.”

Negron’s move is a signal that he faced a steep climb to pass the proposal in his own chamber. The changes attempt to counter some of the most effective arguments used by the sugar industry, which aggressively opposed his proposal. Although Negron’s proposals had support from many Senate Republicans, Democrats in both the House and Senate were opposed, and House leaders were prepared to derail it.

Residents of the region complained that the loss of farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area could force the closure of a sugar mill and dramatically hurt the economy, where the unemployment rate is already in double digits.

To address those concerns, the Senate plan includes additional economic development and job-training programs to the communities in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area. Among the projects identified: the Airglades Airport in Hendry County, the development of an inland port in Palm Beach County and several infrastructure projects.

Negron said he hopes the Senate’s willingness to compromise will send a signal to House leaders to be more open to modify its opposition to bonding to buy land for the project.

“Just as we’re making an effort to address their concerns, the House also has an obligation to address our concerns,” he said.

In the first year, $64 million of existing LATF funds would be earmarked to acquire land, negotiate leases and to begin work on the storage project.

The plan calls for purchasing at least 3,800 acres of private land adjacent to those parcels for additional storage, land the state bought in 1999 from the Talisman family farms. The state would also allow another 3,000 acres owned by the state and farmed by state inmates under the PRIDE program to be swapped with Florida Crystals, or other interested growers.

The proposal includes two deadlines: January 2018, when state agencies must show evidence of substantial progress on land acquisition, and Oct. 1, 2018, for approval of the plan. Negron said he expects the work to be completed in four years.

The South Florida Water Management District, which opposed Negron’s original plan, would be required to accelerate its planning schedule for Everglades restoration from 2021 to 2018.

The change increases the responsibility of the district to address the water-quality issues that occurred last year when polluted discharges from the lake led to toxic algae blooms on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, and requires them to identify the land needed to solve the problem.

Water regulators also would have to use a specific-water quality model known as the Dynamic Model for Stormwater Treatment Areas (DMSTA) and, if the water in the reservoir violates water-quality standards, the district must come up with a plan to purchase additional land from “willing sellers.”

“I can’t say they’re on board with this proposal, but they are obviously going to be in the driver’s seat in terms of helping execute it,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who worked with Gov. Rick Scott’s office to get the district to provide technical assistance on the plan.

“It’s going to be their model which will determine how much land is needed,” he said. “They’ll have to identify the land and how it’s going to be secured within the constraints of the dates.”

Negron said that it’s “too early to tell” how much private land would be needed for both storage and treatment areas, but it will be “substantially less than 60,000 acres of private land.”

“We’re moving toward an area where both sides can achieve the ultimate goal, which has been 100 to 120 billion gallons of southern storage,” he said.

“This amendment makes significant progress and demonstrates that the Florida Senate has begun taking seriously the concerns of residents from communities south of Lake Okeechobee,” said U.S. Sugar spokesperson Judy Sanchez in an emailed statement. “While the amendment improves the bill, there are significant concerns related to the arbitrary timelines for the southern storage reservoir.

“We agree with Senator Negron that science should continue to guide this bill, and we look forward to providing additional input on developing science-based solutions that actually will reduce the harmful discharges and build real solutions that work for all of our communities.”

The reservoir would provide between 100 billion to 120 billion gallons of storage south of Lake Okeechobee “to maximize the reduction of high-volume Lake Okeechobee regulatory releases to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries in addition to providing relief to the Lake Worth Lagoon,” the amendment states.

Water from the reservoir would then be sent into water treatment areas before it drains into the Everglades to renew the freshwater needs of Florida Bay.

“This amendment gets us one step closer to having a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, a project that’s been contemplated for 17 years,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. “After experiencing 242 days of a water emergency in 2016 that saw a toxic algae bloom on the east and west coasts, we’re moving in a direction to store significant water south of the lake and, more importantly, direct clean water to Florida Bay.”

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, also supports the amendment, saying it “creates a path forward to fund and build the reservoirs that are critical to ending the tragic discharges to our coastal waters while sending more water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay.”

Frank Wesley Williamson III, an Okeechobee rancher in July 2016, developed practices that reduce his phosphorus footprint on Lake Okeechobee and surrounding waterways.