Lawmakers in Florida House shouldn’t squander best chance yet to help the Everglades

Miami Herald Editorial Board

In June 2016, boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart, Fla., were surrounded by blue green algae.
In June 2016, boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart, Fla., were surrounded by blue green algae. via AP

The Florida Senate gets it. As a result, Senate lawmakers have passed one of the most carefully crafted bills yet to ensure the health of the Everglades. As environmentalists, water-dependent businesses, economists and tourists know, so much depends upon the health of the River of Grass, including South Floridians’ access to clean water, the state’s economic vitality, indeed, the well-being of the state itself.

This is not an overstatement.

Florida desperately needs a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. For too long, the state has blithely allowed water released from the lake to flow to the coasts, and out to sea, an unconscionable waste of this precious resource. Just as bad, pollutants in that water have created massive algae blooms that, literally, have raised a stink in estuaries and along beaches, threatening to ruin the entire ecosystem around Lake O and the Everglades.

The reservoir will serve two vital purposes. First, it will store the billions of gallons of water currently being sent to the coasts. Second, it will feed needed water to the Everglades to keep them hydrated.

Now, the House, scheduled to take up the issue in committee on Monday, must realize what’s at stake, too. Those lawmakers should recognize a good deal when it sees one. Ultimately, they can be leaders who acknowledge just how beneficial the Senate’s bill will be for the state, or they can be obstructionists and pick it apart, load it up with needless amendments and torpedo far more than just a bill.

Senate President Joe Negron was a leader. Coming into the session he made creating a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee a priority and put his political muscle behind it. More important, he listened, addressed sugar industry and residents’ concerns and urged compromise — a seemingly long-forgotten principle in the Legislature.

The state Senate overwhelmingly approved a compromise version of Senate Bill 10, originally introduced by Sen. Rob Bradley. It calls for state-owned land, in addition to sugar-industry property, to be used for the reservoir. It also allows the state to negotiate with private land owners. This mix of properties should put to rest claims that the state is simply conducting a “land grab.”

The bill wisely anticipates some job loss as private commercial properties are taken off line to create the reservoir. There is money in the bill for job training and infrastructure projects to employ displaced workers.

The state and federal governments will split the $2.4 billion cost. (For perspective, The U.S. Corps of Engineers has spent at least $500 million since 2007 on stopgap measures to shore up the 143-mile dike.) The feds consistently have come through for Everglades restoration, and Florida’s lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate must hammer home the point that the Everglades are a national treasure.

During the past year, evidence of the challenge has been most stark. Record rainfall raised Lake O’s water to alarming levels, with Herbert Hoover Dike under threat. Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency in St. Lucie and Martin counties, Negron’s political back yard. By that time, there was little else Scott could do.

But Scott himself had thwarted an optimistic proposal developed by his predecessor, Charlie Crist, to buy sugar property to create the reservoir. The governor, too, should show himself to be a leader, and get behind this current effort and push.

The Senate has done its job — well. Now, House lawmakers, and the governor, must do theirs.