Florida House should not water down reservoir plan
By Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
April 20, 2017
The Florida House will hold its first committee vote Monday on the most important environment bill of the legislative session. Ideally, the House will make no changes to the Senate bill.
SB 10 would create a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that would divert excess lake water from coastal estuaries and direct it where the water could help to replenish the Everglades. Along with that twofold environmental benefit would come the economic benefit of helping industries — boating, sport fishing, real estate — that depend on clean estuaries and a healthy Everglades.
One of those estuaries is in Martin County, which Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, represents. Negron has made this bill his priority, and already has allowed changes to address criticisms.
The legislation now reduces the amount of private sugarcane land the state would buy for the reservoir. The legislation delays the bond financing to which House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, had objected. The cost is down from $2.4 billion to $1.5 billion, with the state to seek half from the federal government.
Last week, the Senate passed the legislation 36-3. Counting three committee appearances, Senate Bill 10 got just six dissenting votes on its way to approval.
From the start, Corcoran has allowed the Senate to take the lead on this issue. As of Thursday, it seemed unlikely the House would do more than make minor revisions to SB 10 — if that. The potential problem is that this is an especially difficult year to predict what the Legislature might do.
Never in recent memory have members of the dominant party — Republicans — been so divided. As a result, never in recent memory — with barely two weeks left in the session — have so many big issues been in flux.
The House and Senate remain billions apart on the budget, raising doubt that the session will end on time. Gov. Rick Scott and Corcoran haven’t budged on their wishes for the state’s job recruitment and tourism promotion agencies. Corcoran wants to eliminate the former and cut money to the latter. Scott wants bigger budgets for both and this week asked for even more. Medical marijuana and gambling are unresolved. The House and Senate disagree over paying private companies to build and operate charter schools that take students out of poor-performing public schools. That money – $200 million – is a Corcoran priority.
This week, Scott proposed that the state loan the federal government $200 million for repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must lower the lake level when water rises high enough to potentially stress the dike. Those discharges of polluted water now must go east or west, into the estuaries.
Reservoir opponents — sugar companies and residents of Glades communities — have argued that final repairs to the dike would do more to prevent lake releases than a southern reservoir. Scott, however, probably won’t get that money, since he’s only asking for it now. And there is no guarantee that, post-Katrina, the Corps of Engineers would allow a rebuilt dike to hold significantly more water. Scott’s request is a side issue.
Which brings us back to all the evidence that supports the reservoir. The University of Florida has concluded that even with all the projects to store water north of the lake — the sugar industry’s preferred plan — a southern reservoir still is necessary to reduce and possibly end the releases.
This week, a pro-reservoir group in Martin County released a paper by Dr. Jay O’Laughlin, who taught in the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources. To the criticism that the reservoir would cost jobs in the Glades, O’Laughlin responds that construction and operation of the reservoir would create new jobs. SB 10 requires that local residents get first crack at those jobs.
Compromise in the Senate removed any credible objection to the reservoir bill. The House should do no harm.