Negron: Farmland isn’t only option for Okeechobee plan

By Jim Turner
February 1, 2017
Orlando Sentinel


TALLAHASSEE  —  Senate President Joe Negron appears willing to look beyond sugar farmland to carry out his proposal to reduce the flow of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into bays on both coasts.

The Stuart Republican, speaking at the Capitol this week, maintained his desire to buy 60,000 acres for a reservoir south of the lake to store and clean water.

Negron noted the need for a reservoir was backed in some form by environmental experts at recent Senate hearings. But the $2.4 billion plan has drawn staunch opposition from sugar growers, farmers, government officials representing inland communities and lawmakers from other parts of the state.

“We’ve been talking about southern storage from Lake Okeechobee for 20 years,’’ Negron said. “It’s not a new idea. It’s not a radical idea. It’s not an unusual idea. It’s an idea that at different points in time the agricultural industry has supported,” Negron said. “It’s just a matter of when and where. My view on when is now. And my view on where is, let’s have committee meetings and hearings, and get public input, and let’s make a decision and let the water management district select the best place.”

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said Tuesday his caucus hasn’t taken a position but that the land buy alone won’t solve the water issues across South Florida.

Negron wants to pay for the project by selling in $100 million in bonds annually, using money voters approved for land preservation in 2014. The federal government would have to approve half the money for the project.

House leaders have said they are opposed to bonding, and Gov. Rick Scott didn’t include funding for the land purchases in an $83.5 billion budget proposal released Tuesday.

The South Florida Water Management District — now headed by Pete Antonacci, who formerly served as Scott’s general counsel — voted in 2015 to terminate an option to buy 46,800 acres under a 2010 deal, with board members rejecting calls that the U.S. Sugar land was the only solution to cleaning South Florida waters.

After appearing before a Senate committee in early January, Antonacci said the state needs to focus first on completing storage areas that will help raise the water level in the Kissimmee River valley, reducing the flow into the lake from the north, and could use farmland it already owns south of the lake for the additional storage.

U.S. Sugar now calls the use of its land for Negron’s proposed reservoir “the most expensive and least effective idea with the longest timeline of all available options for reducing lake discharges.”

Also, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he continues to oppose the state purchase of the targeted farm land, a position he’s held since the 2010 deal was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

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