Everglades restoration: Debate rages over plan to spend $800 million to build a massive water cleaning reservoir

A plume of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River laps the shore of Captiva, left, and Sanibel Islands off the southwest coast of Florida in February. Photo by John Moran/Springs Eternal Project.
A plume of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River laps the shore of Captiva, left, and Sanibel Islands off the southwest coast of Florida in February. Photo by John Moran/Springs Eternal Project.
Published Jan. 7, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Should Florida buy land to save water?

That simple question is shaping up to be a complicated and politically tangled debate this legislative session as the state's powerful sugar industry ramps up against the widening reach of water-weary local communities in an age of climate change and sea level rise.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made the issue a top priority when lawmakers meet in regular session beginning March 7.

After a summer of watching toxic algae blooms poison local waterways, Negron decided that nearly 20 years is long enough to complete the state plan to build a water-cleansing reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to bring more clean water to South Florida and reduce the polluted discharges from the lake that spoiled the estuaries in his district on the east coast and the Caloosahatchee River estuary on the west coast.

"All I'm doing is saying let's accelerate what we already know we need to do, because you can't continue to destroy oyster beds, destroy the sea grasses we spent millions of dollars planting, and have communities where there are literally signs saying 'Due to outbreak of poisonous bacteria, you can't swim in the water,' " Negron told the Times/Herald.

Negron has identified the funds — bonding $60 million of Land Acquisition Trust Fund money approved by voters in 2014 — and is amassing Senate support for budgeting $800 million for land and construction costs. The Senate is drafting a bill and will conduct a wide-ranging hearing Jan. 11 on his key issue.

The proposal would fast-track a project proposed in 2000 under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a 35-year, $10.5 billion program to clean up and restore what is left of the Everglades. The vast ecosystem is the state's principle source of fresh water and has been altered, and shrunk, by decades of highly engineered projects that divert water for agriculture and urban use.

House leaders, however, are sending mixed signals.

Some question the need for the massive land buy or doubt the wisdom of increasing state debt to finance the project. Others show a willingness to challenge the powerful sugar industry, which opposes building a reservoir in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area.

"It's a new day, and we will look at the issue from scratch," said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican who leads the House Commerce Committee, which will help shape the House response to Negron's priority.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, asks whether simply buying land is the best approach but said "everything's a negotiation."

If the Senate gives the House what it wants, such as "full-blown pension reform and (education) vouchers, then 50,000 acres in the Everglades is a no-brainer,'' he said. "But we'll see where we end up."

United in opposition to the plan is Florida's once-divided sugar industry and its allies on the South Florida Water Management District, the governor-appointed panel charged with regulating water quality and quantity from Orlando to Miami.

For the last year, water management district officials have argued against buying land south of the lake and instead attempted to shift the focus to replacing septic systems north of the lake with sewers, reducing polluted run-off into the lake.

They echo the sugar industry's argument that the state should stick to a schedule laid out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to wait until 2021 to build the reservoir — even though the Corps said in July it was willing to accelerate the plan.

It's a dramatic change of heart since 2008, when U.S. Sugar announced it would sell 180,000 to the water management district "as a monumental opportunity to save the Everglades."

The announcement drew fierce opposition from the other sugar powerhouse, Florida Crystals, and U.S. Sugar has since backed off much of the deal. The companies now argue that the state has enough land to store water and there are cheaper methods to restoring the Everglades than building a reservoir that destroys farmland.

"A reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee does absolutely nothing to stop the lake releases," said Ernie Barnett, the former assistant executive director of the South Florida Water Management District who headed up the current restoration plan and is now a sugar industry consultant.

Negron is willing to be flexible on which parcels of land to buy and is not prepared to tap the state's eminent domain powers to condemn land for purchase.

"If we are going to explore purchasing agricultural land, we should look for land that is not in maximum agriculture production," he said.

One proposal being considered is for the state to set up a bid process to find willing sellers.

Recent studies and rainfall have also changed the equation since Barnett and his colleagues developed CERP. "A scientific consensus has developed that the Everglades ecosystem contained much more water historically than previously thought,'' a December report by the National Academies of Sciences concluded, noting only 18 percent of CERP projects have been funded.

On the other side of the debate are environmentalists and local officials from the counties on the east and west coast, whose property values were damaged this summer when toxic algae blooms exploded in estuaries and waterways after the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.

Conservationists, politicians and scientists are meeting this weekend in Fort Myers for the annual Everglades Coalition conference to focus support on the land-buying plan. The goal is to mobilize constituents in key legislative districts to pressure lawmakers to support the Negron plan, said Nick Iarossi, lobbyist for the Everglades Foundation, which is pushing for the plan.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who chairs the Senate subcommittee developing the bill, also supports the governor's proposal to turn septic systems into sewer systems and the water management district's call for storage north of the lake.

"It's a multi-faceted approach, but the goal is clear. We have a situation that's completely unacceptable," Bradley said. "Too many of our citizens are having to deal with intolerable situations regarding our water. The algae blooms and guacamole waterways were an embarrassment for our state, and we should address it."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas