The reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee the Legislature approved this week won't be as big or as instrumental in restoring the Everglades as supporters first hoped. That is a testament to the power of Big Sugar, inaction by the governor and reluctance by lawmakers to sink billions into a long-term project that won't yield immediate political fruit. Still, the plan would help ease pollution in a meaningful way, speed a return to the southerly flow of water into the Everglades and underscore the need for more water storage in South Florida.
The legislation, SB 10, was a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose district has seen firsthand the damage from toxic releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee. 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 15,000 acres of state-owned land into a deep-water reservoir. That would reduce the discharge of dirty lake water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, where the toxic water has spawned blue-green algae blooms that harmed public health, private property and businesses.
The proposal has been scaled back in response to opposition from House conservatives, sugar growers and others who saw the project as too ambitious or a threat to agriculture. Now the reservoir would be about two-thirds of the size originally envisioned. The price also dropped to $1.5 billion from $2.4 billion (the federal government would pay half the cost). The measure was larded up with hiring and job training programs to address any downturn in farming. It also provides millions of dollars in incentives for regional water supply projects in South Florida that have limited use in lowering toxic lake levels or in restoring the Everglades.
Still, even the scaled-down plan would be a significant leap. It speeds the process of building a southern reservoir by four years or more. Moving so much water from the lake would help protect billions of dollars worth of businesses and private property. It amounts to a solid down payment on future water storage needs, comprising one-fourth or more of new water storage needed south of the lake. It also further engages the federal government as a partner in the restoration effort and gives new urgency for South Florida water managers to act.
Gov. Rick Scott says he will sign the bill into law. He could have contributed more by being a strong advocate for Negron's plan, but at least he's behind a compromise that gets this work under way, sets the sights on future storage both north and south of the lake and leads to a strategy for moving more water south.
The bipartisan support for this bill from lawmakers across the state shows that the Everglades is truly considered a state and national resource. The Senate, which took the lead, deserves credit for keeping the reservoir a priority during negotiations and for ensuring that the bill heading to the governor is meaningful enough to warrant his support.