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What To Do About Polluted Water? Florida Senate President Concerned About Reservoir Plans

Water runs high on the Long Pine Key Trail in the Everglades.
Sammy Mack
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Senate President Joe Negron wants water managers to expand their search for land to house a reservoir he has backed to help shift water south from Lake Okeechobee.

In a letter Thursday to South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Ernie Marks, Negron expressed concern that plans put forward a day earlier “may be unnecessarily constrained by using a limited footprint.”

The reservoir, which has been a top priority of Negron, is part of strategy to reduce polluted discharges from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries in Southeast and Southwest Florida. Negron shepherded a bill through the Legislature this year for the reservoir project.

“What I hope to see from the district is a proposal that is workable, that we can make a reality as expeditiously as possible to decrease the need for harmful discharges to the estuaries,” Negron, R-Stuart, wrote. “If the district needs to be flexible with the footprint to put an effective reservoir plan into action, I hope it will consider using any additional land available, if necessary.”

The district released reservoir proposals Wednesday that it says meet the goals of what is known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan by sending 300,000 acre-feet of treated water south into the Everglades each year.

However, some outdoor groups and businesses said the proposals were “woefully short” of meeting the goals of stopping harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges into estuaries.

“The plan suggested by the SFWMD is a staggering betrayal of the legislation signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, and the expectation that Senate President Joe Negron had forged a sensible, cost-effective compromise with Florida's sugar industry,” said a release signed by a wide range of groups that included the Sierra Club, Bullsugar Alliance, Florida Sportsman, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Everglades and the Stuart Flyrodders.

Alex Gillen, director of policy for Bullsugar Alliance, called the proposals “insufficient” to cut discharges and deliver clean water to the Everglades.

The district said in a news release that it has been “steadfast in meeting the aggressive timelines” set by the state.

"The release of these latest model results is an enormous milestone for a project that will help reduce damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries and work in conjunction with our ongoing and future planned Everglades restoration initiatives,” Dan O'Keefe, chairman of the district's governing board, said in a prepared statement.

Among the designs advanced Wednesday, the district could store 240,000 acre-feet of water by using a 10,100-acre reservoir. The district said that would cut the volume of discharges to coastal estuaries by 50 percent upon the completion of other Everglades restoration projects that are underway.

Another design seeks to store 360,000 acre-feet of water by using a 19,700-acre reservoir. The district said that would reduce damaging discharges by 52 percent as part of the overall Everglades work.

The district, which will hold a public hearing on the proposals next Thursday in West Palm Beach, has until Jan. 9 to present reservoir plans to the Legislature, with the final plans ready for federal review by March 30.

During the spring legislative session, lawmakers approved the Negron-backed proposal (SB 10), which allows Florida to bond up to $800 million to speed construction of a reservoir.

The reservoir measure could help reduce the recurrence of toxic algae outbreaks that have been a major issue in Negron's Treasure Coast district.

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Jim Turner is a reporter for the News Service of Florida.