$3.3 billion for state water projects advances in Senate despite concerns

The Okeechobee water-storage bill's price rises to $3.3B as dozens of water projects are added.
An overflow crowd filled a Senate committee room to hear Senate President Joe Negron's water bill. Many wore guacamole colored tee shirts in support of the bill, including Nana Royer and Yosi McIntire, both of St. Augustine, listen. (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
An overflow crowd filled a Senate committee room to hear Senate President Joe Negron's water bill. Many wore guacamole colored tee shirts in support of the bill, including Nana Royer and Yosi McIntire, both of St. Augustine, listen. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published March 8 2017
Updated March 9 2017

TALLAHASSEE — A Senate plan to bond $1.2 billion in state funds to build a water-storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee grew to become a $3.3 billion bonding program that would fund dozens of water projects around the state — from sewage treatment in Tampa Bay to wastewater treatment in the Florida Keys.

The expanded program is an attempt to win wider approval for the top priority of Senate President Joe Negron.

Despite the modifications, the 5-1 committee vote for SB 10 was closer than it appeared. Many supporters expressed reservations that the expensive plan to store water is the most cost-effective solution to prevent discharges of polluted water from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Those discharges led to guacamole-looking toxic algae blooms and a state emergency announced by Gov. Rick Scott in the spring and summer of 2016.

"Normally when the governor issues a state of emergency, some act of God has occurred," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the Senate sponsor. "This is something that was not an act of God. We did this to ourselves."

Negron's goal is to issue $1.2 billion in bonds to purchase 60,000 acres to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, using about $100 million of documentary stamp tax revenue every year for the next 20 years under the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which was Amendment 1 in 2014 and approved by voters.

The reservoir is intended to reduce harmful discharges to the estuaries by storing the water, sending it through cleansing stormwater treatment areas, and then sending it south into the Everglades. It would flow into Florida Bay, where sea grass beds have been dying because of the lack of freshwater. Congress also would have to authorize the federal government to spend another $1.2 billion to complete the project.

But the bill is facing steep hostility from sugar growers and the agricultural community in the area, which would have its productive farming lands converted to massive water-storage reservoirs. The committee heard from many people from the community who testified against the bill and warned about the economic impact of the plan. Dozens of other people, many of them from the communities affected by the toxic algae, wore bright yellow T-shirts that read "support Negron's plan."

Faced with a warning from House Speaker Richard Corcoran that he will not support bonding for water projects, the committee adopted a Bradley amendment that does not create additional bonding capacity but transfers the remaining $3.3 billion of existing bonding authority from Florida Forever to the new Florida Coast-to-Coast Water Resources Initiative.

Voting against the bill was Sen. Oscar Braynon, the Senate Democratic leader from Miami Gardens. He said the Glades area is "a place that's hemorrhaging" and he wants to see an economic development bill for the impoverished Glades region, regardless of whether this water bill is passed or not.

"I visited Haiti, which is a Third World country, and I would compare some of the areas in the Glades to the conditions of a ravaged Third World country," he said before opposing the bill.

Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said she supported the bill as a result of the amendment but wants the state to pursue using land the state already owns for the water storage.

"We need to avoid the employment pitfalls and the farming interests," she said.

Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Harbor, said he would support the bill but was also torn. And Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Merritt Island, who said her son was hospitalized after wakeboarding on the Indian River Lagoon because the toxic water infected a cut on his foot, said she also has concerns about the proposal.

"I have been assured there are more changes as we go forward," she said.

Bradley's amendment also attempts to address other concerns with the bill by making the following changes:

• Creates a new revolving loan financing program to allow the state, water management districts and local governments to develop and operate water-storage and supply facilities.

• Provides up to $35 million to address water projects in the St. Johns River and $2 million for wastewater and conservation efforts in the Keys.

• Provides $20 million in funding as recommended by the governor to convert septic tank systems around the lake to sewer systems.

• Creates a water reuse grant program to assist wastewater treatment facilities in expanding capacity to make reclaimed water available for reuse.

• Directs the Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate repairs to the Herbert Hoover dike and increase storage in Lake Okeechobee as early as possible.

• Requires that construction of the reservoir give priority to hiring qualified people from the agricultural area who have been displaced when productive agricultural land is used to store the water.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.