A crowning achievement of the 2017 legislative session was Senate President Joe Negron’s ability to navigate Tallahassee’s turbulent political waters and forge compromise to create a new storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
With the session over and Gov. Rick Scott’s signature on Senate Bill 10 more than two weeks ago, there’s been ample time to rest at idle speed on this initiative while attention instead focused on shortcomings in the state budget and an omnibus education bill.
This is no time to ease up on the SB 10 throttle, however. There is much to accomplish in the next 18 months before significant leadership changes could occur among the decision-makers who must guide this Everglades restoration project to its mooring.
A timeline within SB 10 and the election calendar could work in tandem, but any delays at the state, federal or South Florida water district level risk throwing this reservoir off course.
What emerged when the session ended wasn’t what advocates of a reservoir south of the lake wanted going into the Legislature’s 60-day assembly. Negron, R-Stuart, started out seeking a 60,000-acre acquisition to store excess lake water, much of which is now discharged into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
There was potential nothing would happen. Scott’s budget didn’t include the state’s financial share. House leadership opposed borrowing to pursue the now-estimated $1.5 billion state-federal collaborative project. Sugar industry leaders understandably feared devastating job losses in communities south of the lake from taking agricultural land out of production in this high-unemployment region. Even if the state were to ante up, it could unravel if the federal government wouldn’t participate.
Yet sickening photographs from Florida’s east coast of green algae-infested waters that resembled plush lawns made it clear failure would be epic. Compromise is that dirty word in politics, but this time dirty waters prevailed over the dirty word.
Today, we have a signed bill and a path forward on an estimated 15,000-acre reservoir on government-owned land where water conveyed south of the lake can be cleansed before it is released toward the treasured Everglades, Florida Bay and the state’s iconic Keys.
“I support storage south of the lake in the A2 Reservoir which utilizes state-owned land and does not take people’s private land,” Scott said in a statement. “This is a big step toward protecting our pristine environment.”
In a statement after the bill signing, U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said the industry giant “ultimately … supported this dramatically improved legislation because it takes essentially no privately owned farmland out of production, removed the threat of eminent domain … and would build on land already in government ownership.”
U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples, has delivered on his promise to bring key congressional leaders to South Florida to see firsthand what’s at stake.
“If there’s one swamp not to drain, it’s this one,” Everglades Foundation chief executive Eric Eikenberg recently told our editorial board.
While President Donald Trump has proposed $1 billion in water project cuts, Politico recently reported there’s $1 trillion for job-creating infrastructure spending in his proposed $4.1 trillion 2018 budget.
This reservoir would be an ideal job-creating public works project during construction and subsequent management, while environmentally benefiting the Everglades. So, too, would accelerating completion of the deteriorating dike around Lake Okeechobee, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responsibility — thus an urgent federal duty to tackle.
Scott had asked the Legislature to include $200 million in the budget to help get the dike expedited and has pressed federal officials on the urgency.
“I have spoken to the Trump Administration about the importance of fixing the federal dike and I know they are very focused on investing in our environment and infrastructure,” Scott said in a statement.
Meanwhile, other contemplated projects to store water north, east and west of the lake also must move forward because this solution is complex.
SB 10 sets deadlines for progress by various agencies involved, starting in July and leading to a report to the Legislature when it convenes in January 2018, early because it’s an election year.
“Election year” is key. Congressional terms are for two years, so key House seats are up in 2018. Scott leaves as governor after 2018 and may challenge Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson; a commitment to Everglades restoration and the reservoir is crucial in the 2018 senatorial race.
In 2018, Scott’s gubernatorial successor must be committed to prioritizing restoration projects north, east, west and south of the lake. He or she also will make appointments to several key water district positions.
“This urgency has to continue,” Eikenberg said.
We couldn’t agree more.