Need for water storage reservoir outweighs criticism | Editorial

By the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
April 1, 2017
Sun Sentinel

Opposition to a water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee is mounting, but the arguments against the project remain unpersuasive.

Two weeks ago, Everglades Agricultural Area farmers and elected officials vented at Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, during a town hall meeting in Pahokee. Negron supports legislation — Senate Bill 10 – that would allocate $1.2 billion toward the purchase of 60,000 acres of farmland for the reservoir. It would prevent most of the lake discharges that create health hazards in coastal estuaries, thus decimating local economies. It also would supply fresh water to the Everglades.

The heart of Negron’s district is Martin County, where the St. Lucie River has suffered repeated poundings over the last 15 years from polluted water released to relieve pressure on the dike around Lake Okeechobee. But Negron also represents Pahokee. He deserves credit for showing up when he knew his own pounding was coming.

Farmers and Glades-area politicians argue that taking more land out of production would further harm a region where unemployment is almost 30 percent. The farmers also claim that no landowners want to sell. The legislation prohibits the use of eminent domain to take the land.

Then Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., expressed skepticism about Negron’s plan. The legislation presumes that the federal government also would pay $1.2 billion to build the reservoir. Rubio said there’s no money in the federal budget for the reservoir.

Rubio’s comments are not surprising. One of Rubio’s most important political patrons is Florida Crystals. With U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals dominates sugar production in the Everglades. Rubio is especially close to Florida Crystals Vice Chairman Pepe Fanjul.

As Negron points out, however, the state always has gone first on Everglades projects, by allocating money to buy the land. Once that happens, the state asks Congress to finance the construction share. It doesn’t matter at this point if the reservoir money isn’t in the federal budget.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sugar is using a public relations firm to wage a campaign against the reservoir, arguing it will cost jobs in agriculture. The campaign says nothing about the job costs in tourism, fishing and real estate when images of toxic-green rivers and dead fish are broadcast worldwide.

U.S. Sugar’s newfound concern for Glades residents smacks of hypocrisy. In 2008, the company reached a deal with then-Gov. Charlie Crist to sell the state almost all of its land and assets and go out of business. As the same Glades towns contemplated that economic catastrophe, a U.S. Sugar executive noted that it would take at least six years to finalize the deal.

A vital environmental restoration should not have to wait because the state and local governments have done too little to help diversify the Glades economy away from agriculture.

Still, we acknowledge the reservoir plan should try to minimize the economic damage. We also acknowledge the reality of the sugar industry’s political clout. U.S. Sugar has donated nearly $1 million to committees supporting Gov. Rick Scott since the governor’s first campaign in 2010.

So as SB 10 moves toward a vote this week in the Appropriations Committee, negotiators could ask whether the state could achieve Negron’s goal of storing 360,000 acre-feet of water on fewer than 60,000 acres. Some parcels might be able to hold more water than others. The state also owns some strategic parcels south of the lake that could be part of a reservoir plan.

Scott has suggested that moving homeowners along the St. Lucie River from septic tanks to sewers could reduce pollution entering the St. Lucie estuary and Indian River Lagoon. The governor’s budget includes $40 million for such projects. The House budget has $25 million.

Septic tanks, though, are just a small part of the solution. Reservoirs north of the lake — the farmers’ preferred option — can treat water and reduce pollution. As the University of Florida’s Water Institute has shown, however, a southern reservoir would do much more to reduce discharges. It would supplying fresh water to finally restore the Everglades.

The opponents may be getting louder, but their case isn’t getting any stronger.

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