No Everglades restoration plan will succeed without cleaning up the polluted water coming from Lake Okeechobee. That's why the Florida Senate's strong vote Wednesday to build a reservoir south of the lake is so critical. It charts a course for easing the dumping of toxic water along the coasts, restoring the water flow to the south and making more efficient use of water resources for fast-growing South Florida. The House should approve the legislation and send SB 10 to the governor.
The plan calls for building at least 240,000 acre feet of water storage south of the lake — the equivalent of 78 billion gallons — by converting 14,000 acres of state-owned land into a deep-water reservoir. That would help prevent lake discharges during the rainy season from being dumped into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, where the dirty water has spawned blue-green algae blooms that have harmed public health, damaged property and businesses and forced the closure of parks and beaches.
The legislation is a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose constituents know firsthand the damage the toxic releases have done to Florida businesses, tourism and private property. Last year's discharges forced Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency as tourists canceled plans to visit and as businesses and homeowners saw their livelihoods and properties threatened by the state's failure to act.
The Senate deserves credit for voting 36-3 to push ahead despite criticism from the sugar industry and its supporters in the Legislature. In response to opposition, Negron scaled back the proposal, calling for a reservoir about two-thirds the size he originally envisioned. The price tag dropped, too, to $1.5 billion from $2.4 billion (the federal government would pay half the cost). The state would not be allowed to use eminent domain to acquire additional land, and the bill includes incentives for hiring and training farm workers at risk of losing their jobs in the region with a downturn in agriculture.
The reservoir would meet a need that restoration planners have recognized for two decades by increasing storage south of the lake as a means of cleaning and pushing more water through the Everglades basin. It would also act as a safety valve for residents south of the lake threatened by rising lake levels. This is neither a land grab nor a distraction to ongoing Everglades projects, as critics of the bill claim. The Senate plan balances farming with Florida's larger interest in sustainable development. State and federal officials also should be capable of moving forward with Everglades restoration as science and opportunities develop. That sense of forward vision and flexibility has long been at the heart of the restoration effort.
The House has been lukewarm to the project, as it is largely financed through bonding, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, says, "Bonding is an issue." But the state routinely borrows for all sorts of major infrastructure spending — for roads, water and sewer systems, parks, bridges and other big-ticket items — that build capacity. Bonding should not be an issue. The issue is completing a long-anticipated and essential priority for a growing state.
Lawmakers should also not be distracted by poison pills. There is value in building storage north of the lake, in cracking down on septic tanks and in taking other measures that would benefit the Everglades. But none of them are excuses for delaying a southern reservoir. The Senate president has seized an opportunity, and the House should also grab this breakout moment to advance the cleanup in a historic way.