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Against all odds, Florida Legislature approves Lake O reservoir bill, but will Congress do its part?

Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart are surrounded by toxic algae blooms in June 2016. The Florida Legislature finally came together and passed a bill to build a new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to alleivate the problem. But the next step may be even harder: Convincing Congress to pay for the other half of the $1.6 billion price tag. [The Palm Beach Post]
Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart are surrounded by toxic algae blooms in June 2016. The Florida Legislature finally came together and passed a bill to build a new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to alleivate the problem. But the next step may be even harder: Convincing Congress to pay for the other half of the $1.6 billion price tag. [The Palm Beach Post]
Published May 10, 2017

Against all odds, the bill to build a new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to alleviate toxic algae blooms passed both houses of the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law Tuesday.

Believe or not, the next step could be even harder: Convincing Congress to say yes, too.

It won't happen anytime soon, though.

While the state is spending $800 million to help cover half the cost of the reservoir, Florida needs the federal government to come up with the other half of the $1.6 billion price tag.

Everglades Foundation President Eric Eikenberg said Congress needs to approve the money in 2018, when it will likely consider a new round of funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects.

To get the ball rolling, U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., toured the Everglades this week, a trip arranged by U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples.

The hard part, Eikenberg said, will be maintaining the sense of urgency that pushed a reluctant governor and Legislature to go along with the expensive project in the first place.

The impetus for the project came from a toxic algae bloom so thick and persistent that it closed the beaches of Martin County last Fourth of July weekend. Some Treasure Coast residents described it as smelling like "death on a cracker." The tourism and fishing industries suffered.

The algae bloom started in May 2016 in Lake Okeechobee, where state officials have not required pollution limits to be met since those limits were created in 2001. The Army Corps, which operates the floodgates at the lake, had been dumping excess water from it since heavy rains hit in January. The discharges spread the algae to the coast.

This is far from the first time such an environmental and economic disaster has spread from the lake to the state's coastal estuaries. Coastal residents and businesses have insisted for 20 years that the solution is to send the lake water southward, the way it used to flow before sugar companies farmed that land.

The sugar companies strongly resisted this, contending that the real solution was to raise the dike around Lake Okeechobee so it could hold more water. That is the solution Gov. Rick Scott preferred.

But Florida's Treasure Coast is represented by state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who was elected president of the Florida Senate last year. He used his considerable political clout to push through Senate Bill 10, which calls for building a reservoir south of the lake to hold some — though not all — of that excess water. Then the reservoir could release it into the Everglades.

In horse-trading with the House, the reservoir that Negron got is a smaller entity than he one he originally wanted. It won't provide the full range of benefits for the entire Everglades as the original one would have.

And instead of being built on property now planted in sugar, it will be on a former sugar plantation called Talisman that was bought by the taxpayers in 1996 — to become a reservoir.

"Twenty years later we're still talking about the same parcel," Eikenberg said.

If Congress says yes to the project too, then figure five to seven years for construction, based on the Army Corps' track record for building similar projects.

At this point the size and design of the reservoir are unknown, but chances are that what's built will be smaller than what the system actually needs, said Christopher McVoy, a scientist who performed ground-breaking research for the state on how the Everglades works and how it should be restored.

McVoy also questioned how the new reservoir will release unpolluted water into the Everglades when the state's current treatment areas for stormwater are already at capacity.

He noted that Negron's bill didn't specify where the water will flow out of the reservoir, and pointed out that both the Everglades and the sugar companies may wind up fighting over who gets that flow in dry times.

"That's a barn-door size loophole," McVoy said.

The thing to remember about the reservoir in particular and Everglades restoration in general, he added, is that "this whole thing is part science and part what you can get politically."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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