CLEWISTON — Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday he will ask the Legislature for $50 million to speed up a federal project aimed at strengthening the dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee and better protect nearby towns from a potentially deadly failure.
Scott said the money would help complete the federal project by 2022 instead of 2025. The governor and lawmakers also budgeted $50 million during the current fiscal year, the first time the state contributed to the $1.7 billion renovation project.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the 80-year-old dike, has said completing the project three years early would require $200 million annually, up from the $50 million to $150 million that’s been federally budgeted over the last decade. President Donald Trump, a friend of the Republican governor and part-time Florida resident, announced last week that he supports expediting the project, which is about halfway done.
If the 142-mile-long dike failed during a hurricane or because the lake level got too high, it could endanger the thousands of people living in nearby farming towns. An earlier state-built, smaller dike failed on the lake’s southern edge during hurricanes in 1926 and 1928. The resulting flash floods killing 300 people the first time and more than 2,500 the second.
Scott also argues that strengthening the dike will improve the environment as the Corps won’t have to dump as much water into canals that lead to the state’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Such dumps can cause massive algae blooms like those last year that poisoned waters in and near the Atlantic coast town of Stuart. Scott said he believes he and the president can get the congressional support needed to increase federal spending on the project.
"Everybody realizes that Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades are important nationally. I have spent a lot of time in Washington and I believe that if everybody stays active we are going to get it done," said Scott at a press conference next to a portion of the dike that borders Clewiston, a sugar-growing town of 7,600 residents. Scott’s political action committee recently launched a campaign-style TV commercial partly focused on his work on the dike. Scott, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term next year, is considering a run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
Scott was joined by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican who said he will support the measure. Republican Senate President Joe Negron, whose district borders the lake, said in a statement that he looks forward to working with the governor on the issue.
Janet Taylor, leader of the local group Glades Lives Matter, which backs the dike improvement project, said she appreciates the governor and president’s support for the speed-up but says their promises need to be "fulfilled" and more construction crews need to be deployed.
"Words are good, but I want to see them actually working on the dike," said Taylor, a former Hendry County commissioner.
Lake Okeechobee is the second-largest natural freshwater lake in the continental United States, covering 730 square miles about 40 miles west of Palm Beach.