Negron’s smart next step for the Everglades

The Tampa Bay Times

In Stuart last year, docked boats were surrounded by blue-green algae.
In Stuart last year, docked boats were surrounded by blue-green algae. AP

There should be no doubt that the Florida Legislature should move forward with a sensible plan to create more water storage space south of Lake Okeechobee to achieve the goals of the multibillion-dollar Everglades cleanup effort.

That is critical for easing the dumping of toxic lake water onto the eastern and western coasts, replenishing South Florida’s drinking water supply and increasing the flow of water to replenish the Everglades basin. The science is settled and the money exists, and lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott should act in the interests of public health and the state’s economy.

On the table is a proposal by Senate President Joe Negron to build a new reservoir south of the lake. Unusually heavy rains last year forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release tens of billions of gallons of tainted water from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, a flood control effort aimed at stabilizing lake levels and protecting property owners to the south.

The releases spawned massive blue-green algae blooms that presented serious health risks and damaged property values and tourism. Faced with beaches and parks coated in muck, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties. But those steps were more about the governor trying to blame the federal government for not repairing an old dike on the lake rather than a genuine effort to address a decades-old problem — the lack of a safety valve to take water from the lake at high tide, clean it and redirect it from the estuaries to water-hungry South Florida.

Negron, R-Stuart, proposed in August that the state buy 60,000 acres for new water storage south of the lake. Under the federal-state cleanup effort, he envisions a 50/50 split on the $2.4 billion cost, leaving the state’s portion at $1.2 billion. Negron would use money allocated through Amendment 1, the environmental land initiative that voters overwhelmingly adopted in 2014.

This is a practical, timely and affordable approach for dealing with a problem that has existed for decades. There is no doubt additional storage is needed south of the lake, both to ease the pressure to discharge dirty water from the lake and to increase the water flow to the Everglades. The scientific community has agreed on those goals for years.

Opponents say the state should focus on cleanup projects already in the works and stick to a schedule laid out by the Army Corps to wait until 2021 to deal with the reservoir. But the Corps is willing to fast-track the plan, and a proposal to replace leaky septic systems north of the lake should have no bearing on this decision. This is, after all, an evolving cleanup effort, and the state and federal governments need to go where the science leads.

Negron and environmental advocates are right that there is no sense in waiting to construct a reservoir this project needs. Nearly halfway into the timeline for the Everglades project, less than 20 percent of the costs have been funded. And there is still “no long-term downward trend in phosphorus loading” to the lake, meaning there is enough existing phosphorus to maintain elevated loads “for the next 50-120 years.” How does waiting help the estuaries, the people who live and work on the east and west coasts or Florida’s image as a tourist destination? It’s time for lawmakers to act.

A longer version of this editorial was first published in the Tampa Bay Times.