Tuesday, January 23, 2018
News Roundup

Contentious Everglades reservoir plan gets swift early approval but opposition grows

TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Joe Negron's plan to build a $2.4 billion reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee passed its first test Tuesday, winning the unanimous support of a key Senate committee as opposition mounted.

The proposal, SB 10, would allow the state to issue $1.2 billion in bonds to purchase 60,000 acres of land to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries using about $100 million of documentary stamp tax revenue every year for the next 20 years. Congress would also have to authorize the federal government to spend another $1.2 billion to complete the project.

"This is not a silver bullet," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the sponsor of the bill, but he called it a "good faith solution offered to address the real problem."

The bill is a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose home community was rocked when harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee led to a toxic algae outbreak in 2016 and prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency along Florida's Treasure Coast for more than three months.

The proposed reservoir is expected to hold 120 billion gallons of water to offset future discharges from Lake Okeechobee and to store water during the wet season so that it can be sent south to hydrate the Everglades and Florida Bay during the dry season.

But not everyone agrees with the solution identified by environmentalists and now embraced by Senate leaders. Farmers, representing the largest landowners in the Everglades Agricultural Area where the reservoir would be built, told the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee they will not willingly sell their land.

Two Democrats on the committee, Sen. Gary Farmer, of Fort Lauderdale and Linda Stewart of Orlando, raised doubts about the cause of the pollution-laded discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

"Sugar is being vilified in this whole thing," Farmer said. "Sugar cleans a lot of that water before it goes into the lake."

And residents from communities affected by the toxic algae discharges on the east and west coasts, and farmers and local officials from the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area both testified before the committee with competing views of the economic impact of the plan.

Coastal residents told the committee that fishing and tourism was being irreparably harmed by the failure of the state to stop the emergency release of water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries while officials from Pahokee and Belle Glade warned that displacing active farm land would send their farm communities into a tailspin.

The pleas elicited a promise from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the Senate budget chairman, that the bill will include "an economic development component" to help the farming communities when the land is removed from active production.

"If we are going to help jobs in one direction, we are going to help jobs in another direction," he said. "You have my assurance of that."

Bradley also urged the groups to bring new ideas forward. "Now, all options are on the table," he said, but, he warned, delaying the attempts to store water south of the lake was not one of them. "We will act," he said.

One option that surfaced Tuesday is a proposal by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, which would shift responsibility of repairs of Lake Okeechobee's Herbert Hoover dike from the federal Army Corps of Engineers to the state.

Under the bill being draft by Simmons, Florida would offer the federal government a $1 billion interest-free loan to accelerate the repairs to the dike and rebuild it to raise the lake levels from the 15.5 feet allowed in it now to up to 19 feet.

If the Army Corps refuses to do the work by 2020, the South Florida Water Management district would assume control of the dike, rebuild it to allow for additional water storage and, Simmons said, end the damaging discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

"We can stop the discharges by refortifying this dike — the plans are already in place," Simmons said.

But, after the meeting, Bradley raised questions about the wisdom of having the state assume a federal responsibility.

"The Herbert Hoover dike right now is 100 percent a federal responsibility," he said. "We have finite resources in the state of Florida and to repair the dike they've spent $800 million and it needs $800 million more" to make it safe to store water at the current levels.

"It's an interesting discussion," Bradley said. "I'm glad all ideas are on the table" but he did not see it as an alternative to storing water south of the lake.

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida said he tried and failed to talk Simmons out of his proposal.

"It's a horrible idea," he said. "The dike is one of the most dangerous dikes in the nation" and having the state assume responsibility to raise water levels "is an easy sounding solution that actually doesn't work."

Jennifer Reynolds, a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in January that without the repairs "that dam is not safe for the people that live and work around the lake" and whether the lake is used to hold more water for the purposes of Everglades restoration "is a separate issue."

"We believe once the dike repairs are finished we should and will plan to conduct another study that looks at that," she said.

The study is scheduled for 2022, when the dike repairs are complete, and will determine if they can raise the water level safely without risking massive flooding in the surrounding communities, Reynolds said.

Meanwhile, the dike receives one fourth of all federal funding that goes into the corps' national funding, she said, and is engaged in preparing projects for storing water north of the lake.

"If we have a state partner with funding available on the state and federal side we could look at expediting" the projects, she told the Senate committee.

"This is a starting point but we need to have some alternatives from people who don't like this bill," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Miles away in the marshes at the center of the debate, the powerful Everglades Foundation led an airboat tour Tuesday to push its position. A reservoir below the lake and north of sprawling stormwater treatment areas would offer solutions for both ends of the watershed: storage space for polluted lake water and, once clean, water to revive the wilted south end, struggling to survive largely on rainfall.

"These problems are all connected and the solution to that problem is to try to flow the water back to the south," said foundation ecologist Steve Davis.

While critics of the reservoir have focused on efforts to increase storage north of the lake, Davis said that leaves South Florida out of the equation, failing to address persistent problems in Biscayne and Florida bays. It also fails to deal with the vast water conservation areas, where last year's wet winter drove up water levels and flooded hunting grounds used by the Miccosukee Tribe. Restoration, he said, has to occur in an "orchestrated" way that considers all the parts, and not just one problem at a time.

"You need the big picture," Davis said.

Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning shut out Blackhawks

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning shut out Blackhawks

CHICAGO — Turns out, Andrei Vasilevskiy is all right.And, believe it or not, so is the Lightning’s penalty kill, which was the unlikely hero in Monday’s streak-snapping 2-0 win over the Blackhawks at the United Center.Vasilevskiy, 23, played like the...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Back to work: Government shutdown ending as Dems relent

Back to work: Government shutdown ending as Dems relent

New York TimesWASHINGTON — Congress brought an end to a three-day government shutdown on Monday as Senate Democrats buckled under pressure to adopt a short-term spending bill to fund government operations without first addressing the fate of young un...
Updated: 5 hours ago

Male bicyclist struck, killed by vehicle in Pinellas Park

PINELLAS PARK — A male bicyclist was struck and killed by a vehicle on U.S. 19 on Monday night, according to Pinellas Park police.The incident took place at about 8:30 p.m. along the 8000 block of U.S. 19 N, near the Walmart Supercenter.The driver wa...
Updated: 5 hours ago

High school scoreboard for Jan. 22

Monday’s scoreboardBoys soccerPalm Harbor U. 3, Clearwater 0Boca Ciega 3, Indian Rocks Christian 1Girls soccerClass 4A, District 10: Countryside 7, Clearwater 0; Dixie Hollins 2, East Lake 0Class 3A, District 10: Osceola 14, Gibbs 0...
Updated: 5 hours ago

Lottery resultsNumbers drawn after 9 p.m. are no longer available by our deadlines. For results, go to tampabay.com/lottery.Pick 2, 3, 4, 5Mon., Jan. 22, midday:49 851 5049e_SRit11446Mon., Jan. 22, evening:05 733 5365e_SRit06330Fantasy 5Mon., Jan. 22...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Glass art shines at St. Petersburg’s new Imagine Museum

Glass art shines at St. Petersburg’s new Imagine Museum

ST. PETERSBURGThe bay area’s thriving glass art scene adds another member to its ranks today when the Imagine Museum officially opens in downtown St. Petersburg.Dedicated to the movement of studio glass, the museum is the brainchild of benefactor Tri...
Updated: 6 hours ago

Facebook vows progress in halting election meddling

Facebook said Monday that it fell short in preventing the social media network from being used for foreign meddling in the U.S. presidential election.New blog posts written by Facebook executives appear to be the most critical self-assessment yet of ...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Judge: Victims of sports doc are ‘sister survivor warriors’

Judge: Victims of sports doc are ‘sister survivor warriors’

Associated PressLANSING, Mich. — The judge overseeing the sentencing of disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar said Monday that more than 120 girls and women who had given statements so far at the five-day hearing were "sister survivor warriors....
Updated: 7 hours ago
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri severs contract with CareerSource Pinellas

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri severs contract with CareerSource Pinellas

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri severed his agency’s contract with CareerSource Pinellas on Monday after learning that the jobs center told the state it helped 624 sheriff’s employees get hired since 2014.The sheriff said he has no record of CareerSou...
Updated: 7 hours ago

TexasVoter-fraud panel targeted Hispanics, documents showPresident Donald Trump’s voter-fraud commission specifically asked for records identifying all Texas voters with Hispanic surnames, according to newly released documents. Records made public by...
Updated: 7 hours ago