Bradley files Senate plan to buy farm land as Everglades battle mounts
Following up on his promise to release the details of the $2.4 billion Senate plan to buy farm land for a water-storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee this month, Sen. Rob Bradley filed a 14-page bill Thursday that gives the South Florida Water Management district until Dec. 2018 to complete the purchase from 'willing sellers' in the Everglades Agricultural Area for the purpose of building a water storing reservoir.
The bill, SB 10, sets a deadline but also opens the door to the state exercising its option to buy more than 100,000 acres from U.S. Sugar in the same area if no land owners come forward, or can't agree on selling the 60,000 acres needs.
The funding would come from bonding $100 million of Land Acquisition Trust Fund money, which are proceeds from state real estate transactions, to finance the project. It allocates up to $1.2 billion between 2017-19. The minimum price offered to landowners: an average of $7,400 per acre.
The proposal also keeps a tight leash on the water management district board and its managers, whose executive director, Pete Antonacci, has disputed the need to accelerate the land buy. The proposal authorizes the district to swap land as part of any transaction, but once the land is acquired, the district "must immediately begin the reservoir project with the goal of providing adequate water storage and conveyance south of the lake to reduce the volume of regulatory discharges of water from the lake to the east and west."
If the land is not acquired by March 2018, "the district must identify land that is suitable for the reservoir project and the best option for securing such land."
The proposal also intends to require water managers to move from the current restoration project schedule to one that aims to avoid future toxic algae outbreaks by requiring the district to "give preference to those Everglades restoration projects that reduce harmful discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries in a timely manner."
The notion of buying land south of Lake Okeechobee is a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose community was placed under a state of emergency for 246 days last year due to poisonous, smelly algae blooms that clogged waterways and closed beaches and shuttered businesses.
After scientists concluded that storing more water south of the lake could alleviate the harmful discharges as well as bring more fresh water into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, Negron proposed accelerating the reservoir idea, which had been originally proposed in 2000 under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a 35-year, $10.5 billion program to clean up and restore the Everglades.
Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural Resources. He has held two meetings to discuss proposed solutions and get scientific and public input on Negron's plan before offering up the bill.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, told reporters Thursday he had not read Bradley's bill but said his support would depend on if the "science suggests that is the solution, then it is worth a fair hearing."
He said he his goal it to avoid more "blue-green algae blooms" on the coast but echoed the talking points of the sugar industry and questioned the the need to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee. He said he was firmly opposed to bonding to buy the land.
The land buy is fiercely opposed by the sugar industry, which supported the land buy 16 years ago but have since worked to delay it. They now argue that buying the land and taking it out of production is not the best solution but the state should instead use land it already owns for water storage and just engineer those projects to store more water.
Residents of the communities who depend on the farm land that could be taken out of production have also actively opposed the purchase.
Bradley's proposal was immediately lauded by environmentalists, who have testified before the committee in support of Negron's plan to accelerate existing projects by buying land now to build a reservoir south of the lake to help alleviate harmful discharges to the estuaries and send fresh water south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
Eric Draper, president of Florida Audubon who was one of the early advocates for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, the Amendment 1 measure approved 75 percent by voters in 2014, said the legislation to direct more money into cleaning the chief water source for South Florida "is exactly what voters had in mind" and, he added, "using bonds is a smart way to approach this project."
The proposal "moves us closer to having this critical water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that will be cost-matched by the federal government, and we applaud him for taking action to respond to Florida’s water crisis this legislative session,'' said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, a non-profit that has made the land-buy a top priority.
“Last year’s events – which affected Floridians and tourists alike and resulted in local businesses and beaches closing, jobs being lost, property values declining and loved ones getting sick from the toxic algae that plagued our waterways – should serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting our water, now and in the long term,'' he said.
“Three estuaries are in peril and there is one solution – send clean water south,'' said Cara Capp, national co-chair for the Everglades Coalition and Everglades restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "We applaud Senator Rob Bradley and Senate President Joe Negron for outlining a path forward with tangible benefits for Florida’s estuary communities and America’s Everglades. The Everglades Coalition calls on all members of the Florida Legislature and Governor Rick Scott to support this smart and appropriate bill to tackle one of the biggest threats to our state’s water.”