Senate President Joe Negron on Tuesday filed a sweeping rewrite to his top priority legislation to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee by abandoning plans to buy up to 60,000 acres of agriculture land and rely on more state-owned and state-leased sugar fields to store and clean more water to be sent into Florida Bay.
Under the proposed amendment to SB 10, which will be presented Wednesday to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the state would convert state-owned land in the A-1 and A-2 parcels, currently being leased by Florida Crystals and Duda & Sons, and use it to create a 14-foot deep storage reservoir.
The proposal reduces the total cost of the plan from $2.4 billion in state and federal funds, to $1.5 billion. The state's share would be $750 million, which would include an additional $100 million in Legacy Florida funds, bringing the total amount from the documentary stamp tax earmarked by the 2014 Land Acquisition Trust Fund to $300 million. The federal government would be expected to match the remaining $750 million.
Negron's move is a signal that he faced a steep climb to pass the proposal in his own chamber. The changes attempt to counter some of the most effective arguments used by the sugar industry, which was aggressively opposing it. Although Negron's proposals had support from many Senate Republicans, Democrats were opposed and were prepared to vote in a block to derail it.
"We've listened to our constituents, our fellow citizens in the Glades, and scientists,'' Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters. "We have been working to find the right balance between the goals we have and addressing concerns of fellow citizens in the Glades community."
Residents of the region complained that the loss of farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area could force the closure of a sugar mill and dramatically hurt the economy, where the unemployment rate is already in double digits.
The plan also calls for purchasing at least 3,800 acres of private land adjacent to those parcels for additional storage, land the state bought in 1999 from the Talisman family farms. The state would also allow another 3,000 acres owned by the state and farmed by state inmates under the PRIDE program to be swapped with Florida Crystals, or other interested growers.
Another $30 million of existing LATF funds would be earmarked to acquire land and negotiate leases and another $30 million from the trust would pay for beginning the storage project.
The measure leaves option the possibility that the South Florida Water Management District may need to negotiated the purchase of additional land, beginning in the second year, when the programs says the state could also use up to $1.2 billion in proceeds from Florida Forever bonds, which are authorized under current law.
The Senate plan includes additional economic development and job-training programs to the communities in the heart of Everglades Agricultural Area. Among the projects identified: the Airglades Airport in Hendry County, the development of an inland port in Palm Beach County and several infrastructure projects.
The proposal includes two deadlines: Jan. 2018, when state agencies must show evidence of substantial progress on land acquisition and Oct. 1, 2018, for approval of the plan. Negron said he expects the work to be completed in four years.
The South Florida Water Management District, which has opposed Negron's plan, would be required to accelerate its planning schedule for Everglades restoration from 2021 to 2018.
Water regulators also would have to use a specific water quality model known as the Dynamic Model for Stormwater Treatment Areas Model (DMSTA) and, if the storage capacity in the A-2 violates water quality standards, the district must come up with a plan to purchase land from "willing sellers."
"I can't say they're on-board with this proposal but they are obviously going to be in the drivers seat in terms of helping execute it,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who worked with the governor's office to get the district to provide technical assistance on the plan. "It's going to be their model which will determine how much land is needed. They'll have to identify the land and how it's going to be secured within the constraints of the dates."
The change increases the responsibility of the district to address the water quality issues that occurred last year when polluted discharge from the lake led to toxic algae blooms on the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries and requires them to identify the land needed to solve the problem.
Negron said it's "too early to tell" how much private land would be needed for both storage and treatment areas but it will be "substantially less than 60,000 acres of private land."
"We're moving toward an area where both sides can can achieve the ultimate goal, which has been 100 to 120 billion gallons of southern storage,'' he said.
Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar, the primary land owners in the Everglades Agricultural Area, did not respond to requests for comment.
The reservoir would provide between 100 to 120 billion gallons of storage south of the Lake Okeechobee "to maximize the reduction of high-volume Lake Okeechobee regulatory releases to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries in addition to providing relief to the Lake Worth Lagoon,'' the amendment states.
Water from the reservoir would then be sent into water treatment areas before it drains into Everglades to renew the freshwater needs of Florida Bay.
"This amendment gets us one step closer to having a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, a project that's been contemplated for 17 years,'' said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. "After experiencing 242 days of a water emergency in 2016 that saw a toxic algae bloom on the east and west coasts, we're moving in a direction to store significant water south of the lake and, more importantly, direct clean water to Florida Bay."
Eric Draper, executive director Audubon Florida, also supports the amendment saying it “creates a path forward to fund and build the reservoirs that are critical to ending the tragic discharges to our coastal waters while sending more water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay."
The projects covered under the amendment are given the following names: the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project, the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project, the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir Project, the Indian River Lagoon-South Project, the Western Everglades Restoration Project, the C-111 South-Dade Project, and the Picayune Strand Restoration Project.