By @MaryEllen Klas and @JackSuntrup
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio
said Saturday that he is not prepared to support a proposal unveiled this wee
k by incoming Senate President Joe Negron
to spend $2.4 billion in state and federal money to buy sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee to store water in an attempt to minimize the polluted discharges that have spawned toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Rubio, who was in Brandon Saturday morning for the opening of Republican Party of Florida field office, said he will not support federal funds for more projects until the state and federal government "finish the Central Everglades Planning Project because we're not going to get both."
"We are in a competition with 49 other states for water money and if we keep coming up with new projects, what these other states will say to us is, 'Well, we're not going to fund your programs until you guys down there figure out what you really want','' he said.
The state is waiting for Congress to authorize CEPP, a program that is designed to reduce damaging freshwater releases to the estuaries and send more of that water, cleaned of phosphorus, to the estuaries of Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. The plan would also increase the water supply for municipal, industrial and agricultural users.
But, according to a 2015 report by the University of Florida Water Institute commissioned by the Florida Senate, CEPP "produces only relatively modest improvements in high flow conditions [to offset discharges from Lake Okeechobee] and almost no improvement in very high flow conditions for the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee." The report also noted that "even using the most optimistic assumptions, CEPP is not estimated to be complete for a minimum of 24 years."
Negron, R-Stuart, said last week that the state was facing an "environmental emergency" and buying land south of the lake in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area is one of the essential components of solving the dilemma. The increased release of phosphorus-laden discharges from the lake into the estuaries as part of the flood control efforts needed to manage the Everglades' "river of grass" have led to repeated algae blooms over the years, with this year's the worst on record.
“Everyone who has looked at this issue, who has studied it, agrees we have to have storage south of the lake as a piece of the puzzle and a way to prevent these discharges,'' Negron said at a news conference to announce his proposal on Tuesday.
He also said that he has spoken to Rubio and believes that his proposal is "separate and apart" from the previous calls for the purchase of sugar land.
"My sense in talking to members of Congress and Sen. Rubio is that everyone understands that the status quo is unacceptable that something has to be done,'' Negron said.
He choose not to respond to Rubio's comments Saturday.
Negron's plan calls for spending $2.4 billion to buy an estimated 60,000 acres of land in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area to store and clean water before releasing it into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
executive director of Audubon Florida, said Negron's plan is important to work in tandem with the Central Everglades Planning Process.
"CEPP is more about treatment and conveyance. The Negron proposal is about storage,'' he said Saturday. "CEPP is not designed to take water from the Lake in the wet season, so storage is needed.
Rubio, however, said he was prepared to wait for CEPP to be completed first.
"Let's get that done first. And once we have that done, once the money's in hand, if there's more to be done then we'll continue to work on more. But I think this continued coming up with new projects at the federal level is going to cost us both. We're not going to get either and that would be disastrous. So hopefully we can move forward on that."
Draper said that by delaying the purchase of land for storage, as Rubio suggests, could exacerbate the damage to coastal areas "for at least a decade" instead of improving them.
Draper noted that Congress in 2000 committed to funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan approved by Congress and it calls for the purchase of land to store and clean phosphorus-laden water before releasing it into Everglades National Park. A project in the plan, known as ”EAA reservoirs and storage" calls for storing roughly 120 billion gallons of water, the same as Negron’s proposal, and is scheduled for planning in 2020. While most coastal and Everglades advocates would like to move the schedule up, the South Florida Water Management District has opposed that, Draper said.
Rubio's comments underscore the difficulty Negron faces in his quest to jump start the debate over buying up sugar land south of the lake as pivotal component of Everglades restoration and algae control. The efforts to buy land in the heart of the EAA for water storage south has been demanded by environmentalists since Congress approved CERP, but efforts to buy the land needed for the project have been sidelined in the face of agriculture and sugar-industry opposition.
Florida sugar cane growers last week raised concerns about Negron's plan
, noting that the two parcels he identified could remove from production the supply of available farm land needed to fuel the industry's profit centers, their sugar mills.
Negron, however, has indicated he is open to discussing other areas.
Here is a transcript of Rubio's full statement, when asked if he would support $1.2 billion in federal funding for Negron's proposal: