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Environment

Environmentalists Continue Push for Everglades Reservoir

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Environmentalists are optimistic they can get money from Florida lawmakers for a reservoir in the Everglades during the upcoming special legislative session, something they couldn't do during the 60-day regular session.

But so far, only a handful of legislative leaders have proposed such funding as they prepare to return to Tallahassee on Monday to work on the state budget.

Members of the Everglades Trust, the Everglades Foundation and Florida Audubon said Wednesday they will approach the special session with a goal of securing money to build a 40,000-acre to 60,000-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. They also will seek written directions from lawmakers that the South Florida Water Management District find the needed acres and establish a timeline to build the reservoir.

"We cannot and we will not give up on the goal of buying land for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee," Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper said during a news conference Wednesday. "We know that we need to get some type of project south of Lake Okeechobee so we can take that water out of the lake, we can treat it, we can deliver it to the Everglades, where it can help to recharge the water supply and make the Everglades wetter."

Environmentalists are seeking to divert polluted water being sent into estuaries east and west of the lake. But the special session comes after the water management district's Governing Board voted May 14 to terminate an expiring option to purchase 46,800 acres in the Everglades from U.S. Sugar Corp.

The environmentalists point to a University of Florida Water Institute study released in March that highlighted the need to complete needed reservoirs east and west of Lake Okeechobee. The study also recommended building additional water storage and treatment north and south of the lake, creating deep wells to reduce the flow of polluted water from the lake and readjusting scheduled releases from the lake to the estuaries east and west.

Tom Van Lent, Everglades Foundation director of science and policy, said during the news conference the reservoir is direly needed as the Everglades is starving for fresh water and the current storage options have been reduced to "Band-Aid fixes."

"The real concrete solutions are not in the pipeline," Van Lent. "Right now, we don't see the path forward to fix the problems in the estuaries, the Everglades and for our water users."

Draper said funding efforts during the regular session failed because proponents were focused on completing the U.S. Sugar deal.

"I think with that off the table we have a new situation, and we even have some indications that people from the business side of things, from the sugar farmers, are open to the idea that something more needs to be done in the Everglades Agricultural Area," Draper said.

Environmentalists had called the U.S. Sugar land vital in helping to reduce pollutants out of Lake Okeechobee and to bring more water through the Everglades. But U.S. Sugar Corp. soured on the below-market deal that needed to be completed by October. Also, a number of lawmakers overseeing environmental spending have questioned the state's ability to maintain land already in public hands.

However, after the water management district killed the reservoir deal, U.S. Sugar issued a release declaring an intention to keep working on Everglades restoration efforts with the state and federal governments as outlined in Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign proposal to spend $5 billion for Everglades projects over the next 20 years.

The U.S. Sugar land was estimated to cost as much as $500 million, a price tag that far exceeded the proposed spending levels lawmakers put forward in the regular session for land acquisition under the voter-approved initiative known as Amendment 1. That initiative, passed in November, requires the state to set aside increased amounts of money for land and water management and acquisition.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, whose districts have been heavily impacted by the release of polluted waters from the lake, have proposed using more of the Amendment 1 dollars to meet the costs of reservoir space in the Everglades. But so far, the word from the Capitol is that Amendment 1 funding will simply be addressed in budget conference talks during the special session.

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