By Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
April 6, 2017
The Florida Legislature has compromised on a vital Everglades project without compromising the goal.
By a vote of 16-2, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved an amended version of Senate Bill 10. It would create a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to store fresh water for the Everglades and prevent damaging discharges from the lake to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The bill will have a vote before the full Senate next week.
The legislation received just three dissenting votes combined as it went through the required three committees, and the next vote should be just as overwhelming. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has made this legislation his top priority, has allowed changes that maintain the reservoir as a priority and address criticisms from farmers and their supporters.
Originally, SB 10 envisioned the state buying up to 60,000 acres of private land for the reservoir. The new version reduces that amount by first using state-owned land leased for farming in the southern end of the Everglades Agricultural Area. The South Florida Water Management District can seek “willing sellers” if the state needs more land to store the necessary 360,000-acre feet of water.
Elected officials from farm-dependent towns around the lake complained that their communities would suffer if more farmland went out of production. SB 10 now would create an employment training program for people in farm areas with high unemployment. Hendry County, where U.S. Sugar has its headquarters, had Florida’s highest unemployment rate in January – 8 percent, compared to roughly 5 percent statewide.
Local residents would get priority consideration for jobs related to construction of the Everglades reservoir. The Department of Economic Opportunity would tailor the training programs to jobs associated with restoration work, the new airport in Hendry County and the inland port in Palm Beach County. The bill also would end the practice of using cheap prison labor on land leased from the state.
In addition, the new version reduces the reservoir’s cost from $2.4 billion to $1.5 billion. As before, the state would pay roughly half and seek to obtain the rest from the federal government.
U.S. Sugar, which donated $6 million to state candidates and committees during the last election cycle, had strongly opposed Negron’s first plan. The revised legislation is a major concession to the company, as well as Florida Crystals, the other large Everglades farming company.
Under SB 10, something different would happen quickly. By July, the water management district would have to start negotiating with tenants of state-owned land in the area. By January, the district would have to report to the Legislature on the status of those negotiations. By no later than October 2018, the district and the Army Corps of Engineers would have to start planning the reservoir.
U.S. Sugar contends that such a schedule would interfere with other Everglades restoration work. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, sponsor of the legislation, correctly dismissed that argument as “yet another excuse to not move forward with something that everyone agrees has to happen, which is additional storage.”
Another potential excuse is that once repair work once the dike around Lake Okeechobee’s southern shore is complete, the lake can hold more water. Thus, there would be no need for the releases and no need for the reservoir.
The legislation does ask the Corps of Engineers, which controls the lake level, to conduct a “re-evaluation” of the release schedule. Any change, however, is at least eight years away. There also is no guarantee that the corps would allow enough added capacity.
For all the talk about potential loss of farm jobs, the loss of jobs from sick estuaries and an ailing Everglades likely is higher. Reservoir advocates also have their own political clout. Latvala’s political action committee got a combined $90,000 from U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals — and $85,000 from Paul Tudor Jones, who helped to start the Everglades Foundation.
The statement from U.S. Sugar said, “We agree with Sen. Negron that science should continue to guide this bill.”
All the science supports a southern reservoir. Since U.S. Sugar has received its compromise, the company is out of excuses.
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