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Senate Panel Approves Revamped Water Plan

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Amy Green
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A revised measure that seeks to create a "deep" water-storage project south of Lake Okeechobee — and win support from the House and people throughout the Glades region — was overwhelmingly backed Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The $1.5 billion measure (SB 10), which relies on federal money to cover half the costs, is designed to reduce polluted water discharges from Lake Okeechobee that have been tied to toxic algae in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries east and west of the lake.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who has made the issue one of his top priorities, agreed to reconfigure the proposal Tuesday. It initially had a $2.4 billion price tag and targeted farmland south of the lake for a reservoir.

Acquiring farmland remains on the table, but the plan now first would use a smaller amount of state-owned land to construct a deeper storage area.

"We're not done yet, but this is his vision," bill sponsor Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said of Negron. "He's put it all on the line, and the political courage he has shown is something we can all emulate."

The proposal has faced strong criticism from Glades-area residents, politicians and landowners since being proposed last year. Opponents have included powerful players in the sugar industry.

Opponents of the plan, many of whom attended the meeting Wednesday, did not address the committee.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said the changes that Negron made improve the bill, but "significant concerns" remain over "arbitrary timelines" for the reservoir.

The bill drew dissenting votes Wednesday from only two senators, St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes and Sebring Republican Denise Grimsley, as it passed its final committee.

The changes announced Tuesday by Negron addressed a number of economic projects and programs throughout the Glades.

In voting for the measure Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, called the changes "a good framework" to provide economic relief to the people of the Glades.

"I definitely look forward to us hammering out these details for those people," Braynon said.

Braynon last month opposed the earlier version of the bill. At the time, he expressed a need to help people living south of the lake, including the need to create jobs for displaced farm workers.

The proposal encourages economic development in the Everglades Agricultural Area through training programs, support for expansion at the Airglades Airport in Clewiston and plans for an inland port in Palm Beach County. The bill doesn't attach price tags to those projects.

Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he anticipates the port being used to provide relief to Port Everglades and the airport assuming a niche role in handling agricultural goods, including flowers, from South America.

The bill proposes $64 million for the water-storage project next fiscal year but delays for a year plans to increase the state's share of the project through bonding, a form of debt that is opposed by House leaders and Gov. Rick Scott.

Money would come from the state's Land Acquisition Trust Fund and grow to $100 million a year that could be used for bonding.

Also, instead of first trying to find willing sellers from among farmers for a 60,000-acre reservoir, the proposal would initially use land already in state hands for deep-water storage, reducing the footprint with the Everglades Agricultural Area.

It would be up to the South Florida Water Management District to determine the best layout for the storage, to determine how much additional land may still need to be acquired through purchase, allowing existing leases to expire or via land swaps.

Prior to the committee vote Wednesday, the measure was further amended to expand to all state agencies a prohibition on the water management district using eminent domain to acquire the land for the water storage.

Also before the vote, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, proposed and then — after a lengthy introduction — withdrew an amendment for the state to provide money to speed up ongoing federal repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake. The intent would be to retain more water in the lake and reduce the releases into the estuaries.

"Let's fix the dike, then we can fix everything else," Simmons said.