LISTEN LIVE

Questions Linger Over Negron’s Water Priority

Apr 3, 2017
Originally published on April 2, 2017 3:15 pm

Senate President Joe Negron's priority of creating a reservoir to protect rivers and estuaries east and west of Lake Okeechobee appears to have a murky future.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday will discuss the $2.4 billion proposal (SB 10), which would advance work on a part of planned Everglades restoration projects. The proposal to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee has drawn extensive resistance from Glades-area residents, politicians and landowners, including influential sugar farmers.

When asked Thursday if his chamber would take up the reservoir proposal, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said ambiguously "we're all waiting with bated breath" for the Senate bill.

"We're never concerned with the fact that something is not moving in the Senate," said Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes. "We keep sending stuff to them. They should follow our lead."

The fight over the reservoir comes as Senate budget proposals released this week included $22.6 million for state land-buying programs — something that has no matching money in the House proposal — and $275 million for ongoing Everglades restoration projects.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said the state shouldn't "run out and purchase land" as it currently has more than can be managed.

"I think if you look at our budget, we have to make informed decisions and we have to make tough decisions," Trujillo said. "We can't be all things to all people. So just going out and saying we're going to buy a bunch of land, that we can't maintain, when we have rivers that are polluted, when we have all sorts of issues with our beaches that need sand, we're just going to go buy more land, I don't think that's the best use of taxpayer money."

The House is pitching $166 million for Everglades restoration projects.

Negron, R-Stuart, is pushing the reservoir plan after widespread problems with polluted water being released from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Under the proposal, water would move south from the lake instead of going east and west into the other water bodies, preventing toxic algae outbreaks that have inundated Negron's Treasure Coast district.

Negron's bill seeks to bond $64 million next year through the state's Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which receives money from taxes generated by real-estate documentary stamps. The state's annual debt service payment would grow to $100 million through the 2037-2038 Fiscal Year.

House Republican leaders have been opposed to borrowing money for projects. Under Negron's proposal, the federal government also would foot half the bill for the reservoir.

"The president has made it clear that the Senate considers the environment and water issues critical to the future of our state, and the budget reflects that," said Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is sponsoring Negron's water bill.

Wednesday's meeting in the final committee Negron's proposal would have to clear before appearing on the Senate floor. The bill also includes $35 million annually for the St. Johns River, its tributaries or the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida, as well as $2 million annually for water issues in the Florida Keys and $20 million to help with the Indian River Lagoon.

Negron remained optimistic about the issue this week.

"I think we've made tremendous progress on Senate Bill 10," Negron said Thursday. "I'm confident that we're going to at the end of session have additional storage capacity south of Lake Okeechobee."

Negron said talks continue with the governor's office and the House on the proposal.

Under Negron's plan, if willing land sellers can't be found, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet would be directed to exercise an option from a 2010 agreement signed by former Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sugar that requires the state to purchase 153,209 acres.

"I don't know if it's a hammer, but it's a fact that exists and it's an option that they entered into willingly and since it's there, I think it needs to be part of the discussion going forward," Negron said of the U.S. Sugar option. "I think ultimately we'll come up with something."

A group of large landowners from the Everglades Agricultural Area — calling themselves the EAA Landowners — have questioned Negron over his assertion that there are willing sellers.

Negron said the plan could combine existing state-owned land in the Everglades along with some farmland via outright purchases and land swaps.