For the River of Grass, let’s keep reservoir process flowing

Miami Herald Editorial Board

State Senate President Joe Negron made a reservoir to hydrate the Everglades a priority.
State Senate President Joe Negron made a reservoir to hydrate the Everglades a priority. Tampa Bay Times

Last month, we praised the Florida Senate for “getting it.” We urged the House to follow suit and, fortunately, lawmakers there got it, too. We talking about nothing less than ensuring the lasting health and vitality of the Everglades and, therefore, the health and vitality of South Floridians.

Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Scott, too, affirmed just how important the River of Grass is to Florida, and signed a bill that will lead to the creation of a desperately needed reservoir that will store billions of gallons of water and redirect it south to replenish the Everglades. It’s just our source of drinking water, after all.

This victory has been 17 years in the making, progressing in fits and starts, stalling, then, in the most recent legislative session, ably powered through by Senate President Joe Negron.

After a political slog of almost two decades, the reservoir, finally, is a giant step closer to becoming reality. Mother Nature, and Florida’s inability to counter its onslaught of rain that last year raised Lake Okeechobee to worrisome levels, gave the initiative a big boost. Water flushed east and west created a mess of blue-green algae on the coasts, especially in Negron territory.

But, the win in the Legislature aside, we’re not there yet in terms of bringing a reservoir on line.

That’s why it is imperative for the governor and the agencies that now must step up to keep the pressure on to ensure this crowning legislative achievement is realized. In fact, there are some key deadlines embedded in the law, and coming up very soon, that must be met if the process is to proceed smoothly — which it should.

On July 1, the South Florida Water Management District must notify businesses on state land, most notably, Big Sugar, that those leases will be terminated. These properties will be used to create the reservoir. Right now, the sugar industry leases about 22,000 acres. Some, though not necessarily all of it, will go toward the reservoir, including 3,000 acres on which the Department of Corrections harvests sugar. There should be no surprises or pushback on this score. Negron was meticulous enough to craft this legislation with input from all the stakeholders, including the sugar industry. Indeed, there are job-creating and economic development opportunities to ensure that displaced workers have a shot at re-employment. Smart.

On Aug. 2, the Water Management District and the Army Corps must start the process of pulling together a report that they will give to Congress. They’ll have to outline all the particulars: how much land will be used for the reservoir; how deep the thing will be; and that water-quality standards will not be compromised. This is required by the federal Water Resources Development Act. Congress will have to authorize the project for it to receive federal funding — which, again, it should. The state and federal governments are to split the $2.4 billion cost.

And on Jan. 9, another, similar report must be submitted to the Florida Legislature, which will then allow the state to put even more funding toward the project — which, if needed, would be well advised.

After all that, what with paperwork and bidding and such, earth-moving equipment still might not get to work until 2020, with the reservoir operational three to four years later.

So, the sense of urgency remains. The governor must keep the pressure on — the Everglades doesn’t have another 17 years to wait.