TALLAHASSEE — Florida Senate leaders followed through on their commitment to file legislation to buy $1.2 billion of farmland for a water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee Thursday, proposing a bill to bring the sugar industry to the table in negotiating a plan to end toxic algae blooms that have devastated Florida's coasts, and ultimately bring more fresh water into Florida Bay.
The bill, SB 10, by Sen. Rob Bradley, gives the South Florida Water Management District until Dec. 2018 to buy 60,000 acres of farmland from "willing sellers" in the Everglades Agricultural Area for the purpose of building a reservoir. It sets a deadline for the district to accept bids but, if that fails, it opens the door to the state's exercising its option to buy more than 100,000 acres from U.S. Sugar for the project as was originally negotiated in 2009.
The funding would come from bonding $100 million of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, the account voters approved in 2014 under Amendment 1 using proceeds from state real estate transactions. The bill says the prices paid to farmers have to average at least $7,400 per acre.
"The goal is to get a discussion going," said Eric Draper, director of Audubon of Florida, which supports the plan. "The bill provides strong incentives as well as some disincentives relating to options for the agriculture industry."
The notion of buying land south of Lake Okeechobee is a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose community was under a state of emergency for 246 days last year due to poisonous, smelly algae blooms that clogged waterways, closed beaches and shuttered businesses.
Negron endorsed the land purchase after scientists concluded that discharges from the lake caused the algae blooms. The proposal involves accelerating a plan already on the books to store more water south of the lake.
That plan was originally proposed in 2000 under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a 35-year, $10.5 billion program to clean up and restore the Everglades and, 16 years ago, had the support of the Everglades farmers.
Today, the sugar industry opposes the bill as do residents of the farm communities who worry about taking 60,000 acres of the nearly 500,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area out of production.
Negron asked Bradley, R-Fleming Island, chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural Resources, to navigate the bill through the Senate. The hurdles include winning the support of Gov. Rick Scott and the House, where Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, said Wednesday he opposes bonding tax money to buy the land.
If approved, the state would also need congressional authorization and federal funding to build the reservoir in Everglades National Park, and the project could then take a couple of years before planning and construction is complete.
Corcoran told reporters Thursday he had not read Bradley's bill but he said his goal is to avoid more "blue-green algae blooms" on the coast. He also echoed the talking points of the sugar industry and questioned the science behind the plan to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee.
"If the science suggests that is the solution, then it is worth a fair hearing," Corcoran said. He added that he was opposed to buying the land absent scientific justification.
A new advocacy group called EAA Farmers said Bradley's bill was "based on fake science."
"Taking more farmland south of Lake Okeechobee will not solve problems in the coastal estuaries, will waste billions of taxpayer dollars and will harm the small, rural communities of the EAA and family farmers who have cared for this land for generations," said Danielle Alvarez, spokesperson for the EAA Farmers.
The sugar industry supported the land buy 16 years ago but now argues that the state should instead use land it already owns for water storage and engineer those projects to store more water.
Bradley's bill was lauded by environmentalists, who have testified in support of Negron's plan.
Draper, who was one of the early advocates for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, said the legislation to direct more money into water storage and recovery for South Florida "is exactly what voters had in mind" and, he added, "using bonds is a smart way to approach this project."
The proposal "moves us closer to having this critical water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that will be cost-matched by the federal government, and we applaud him for taking action to respond to Florida's water crisis this legislative session," said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, a non-profit that has made the land-buy a top priority.
"Last year's events — which affected Floridians and tourists alike and resulted in local businesses and beaches closing, jobs being lost, property values declining and loved ones getting sick from the toxic algae that plagued our waterways — should serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting our water, now and in the long term," he said.
The proposal spells out how the water management district must implement the plan. It authorizes the district to swap land as part of any transaction, but once the land is acquired, the district "must immediately begin the reservoir project with the goal of providing adequate water storage and conveyance south of the lake to reduce the volume of regulatory discharges of water from the lake to the east and west."
The district's executive director, Pete Antonacci, has disputed the need to accelerate the land buy.
If the land is not acquired by March 2018, "the district must identify land that is suitable for the reservoir project and the best option for securing such land" and that includes land owned by U.S. Sugar, which originally agreed in 2009 to sell its land to the state and close its mills.
The proposal also requires the district to "give preference to those Everglades restoration projects that reduce harmful discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries in a timely manner."
"Three estuaries are in peril and there is one solution — send clean water south," said Cara Capp, national co-chair for the Everglades Coalition and Everglades restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at email@example.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.