By Orlando Sentinel Editors
November 14, 2016
A week ago, while most Floridians were preoccupied by a certain approaching news event, a 12-day bus tour concluded in a campaign to highlight an issue whose impact — at least for Florida —could linger well beyond the results from Election Day.
Sponsored by the Everglades Foundation, the “Road to Restoration” tour — whose stops included Orlando — was intended to rally support for a plan to buy land and build a massive new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. The plan, whose $2.4 billion tab would be split between state and federal governments, comes from incoming Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican. His district includes coastal areas devastated this year by toxic algae blooms fueled by releases of water from the lake.
The plan already is under attack from opponents, even though its formal introduction in next year’s legislative session is still months away. On Monday, we published a guest column from a governing board member of the South Florida Water Management District, the public agency responsible for taking the lead in Everglades Restoration, who dismissed the idea of building a new reservoir south of the lake as ineffective, too expensive and “agenda-driven.” It’s easy to find flaws in a proposal that is so ambitious when it still has blanks to fill in. But leaders would be more responsible to try to make it work.
The alternative, stretching far into the future, are environmental crises like this year’s, triggered when the Army Corps of Engineers released billions of gallons of water to alleviate pressure from rain-swollen Lake Okeechobee on the aging dike that surrounds it. There’s insufficient storage for runoff south of the lake, so the corps flushes the water east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River, where it wreaks ecological havoc. A similar crisis was brought on by lake-water releases in 2013.
Algae blooms aren’t just deadly for fish and other wildlife in the affected areas. They aren’t just catastrophic for local businesses that rely on fishermen and other visitors, and coastal real estate whose value depends on a clean environment. News coverage of bright green, guacamole-thick water washing up on beaches damages Florida’s brand with tourists across the country and around the world. It’s a blow to the entire state’s economy.
Congress passed a landmark Everglades restoration law in 2000 that included authorization for the southern reservoir. The project has stalled amid funding shortages and opposition from the sugar industry, which operates on the land where the reservoir would be built. Sugar, a $2 billion industry, would take a hit. But recreational fishing is worth more than $9 billion. Coastal real estate, and tourism, are worth far more.
Critics’ weak arguments
Critics argue that a new reservoir is needed north of Okeechobee to store and treat water, including nutrient-polluted runoff from Metro Orlando, before it enters the lake. But while a northern reservoir also is worth building, it won’t eliminate the need to release water into the two rivers when the lake level gets too high. The Everglades Foundation says a northern reservoir would only reduce discharges by 6 percent, while a southern reservoir would reduce discharges by almost half.
A southern reservoir also would help restore the natural flow of water, artificially disrupted by farming and development, to Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys. And it would help replenish the aquifer that provides drinking water for millions of people in South Florida.
Of particular interest to Central Floridians, some critics contend the cost of the reservoir would leave too few dollars for other environmental priorities around the state, including restoring natural springs. Critics also pit the southern reservoir against other Everglades restoration projects already underway. These are false choices.
In 2014, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to set aside a share of real-estate tax revenues for water and land conservation for the next 20 years. This year’s share will exceed $700 million, and the total will grow in the future. There are enough dollars to finance the state’s half of the reservoir, keep up with a $50-million-a-year commitment to springs, and complete other projects — if lawmakers don’t divert the money.
A chance to stop the spin cycle of crises from Lake Okeechobee is definitely worth pursuing for Florida’s leaders.