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For a Better Florida: Liquid heart of Florida is in trouble and Legislature split on what to do

Algae laps along the shoreline of the St. Lucie River last year, when heavy rains forced the release of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie esturaries. The releases spawned massive blue-green algae blooms. The House and Senate have very different ideas about how to solve the problem.

Photo by Palm Beach Post

Algae laps along the shoreline of the St. Lucie River last year, when heavy rains forced the release of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie esturaries. The releases spawned massive blue-green algae blooms. The House and Senate have very different ideas about how to solve the problem.

The liquid heart of Florida is in trouble. It's causing problems for both coasts.

And the two houses of the Legislature have very different ideas about how to fix the problem. The situation pits two of the state's main industries against each other — coastal tourism versus rural agriculture.

The basic problem is one that's been around for years. Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest freshwater body in the United States, is full of pollution that feeds toxic algae blooms.

The lake is penned in by an old earthen berm, built in 1930, that may or may not hold if the water level gets too high. When heavy rain fills it up, to protect the people who live around it, the government agency that owns it dumps the lake's water out to sea.

That spreads its toxic contents to estuaries on both sides of the state, and starves Everglades National Park and Florida Bay of fresh water.

The lake's discharges have caused problems for decades, ruining tourist business in both the Fort Myers and Stuart areas. Last year, a toxic algae bloom in the lake wound up spreading a stinky green goop along the beaches of Martin County, forcing them to close for the Fourth of July weekend.

As it happens, Martin County's state senator is Joe Negron, the Senate president for the next two years. Negron has vowed to fix the Lake Okeechobee problem, calling it his top priority — and he's sure the Legislature will take the problem seriously this session.

"I don't hear anyone defending the status quo so we can have another year covered in blue-green algae," he said.

Negron's solution is Senate Bill 10, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park. The bill calls for the state to buy 60,000 acres of land now owned by sugar companies south of the lake and turn it into a reservoir that could hold the lake's discharges.

That would save the estuaries on both coasts from taking the brunt of the lake's pollution. It would also aim the water back toward the Everglades and Florida Bay, which need it.

If there aren't enough willing sellers, then the bill calls for buying 153,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar through an option the state acquired in 2010 under former Gov. Charlie Crist.

The estimated price tag is steep: $2.4 billion.

SB 10 has support from the coastal communities, as well as the state's environmental groups, which have launched a publicity campaign called "Now Or Neverglades." It's already passed its first committee stop with a unanimous vote.

Because it's backed by Negron, the most powerful politician in the Senate, it's almost certain to pass that house of the Legislature — but after that, no one knows what might happen.

The sugar growers whose land might be the target of such a buyout are not happy about Negron's plan. They have called SB 10, and its companion HB 716, "nothing more than a big government land grab." The towns south of the lake, where Big Sugar is their Big Employer, have launched their own publicity campaign, called "Glades Lives Matter," to combat the reservoir idea.

They prefer Senate Bill 816, filed by Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood, that calls for the state to take over operation of Lake Okeechobee — and possibly the cost of fixing the dike. His bill also calls for raising the berm 2 feet so the lake can hold a lot more water.

"It's being presented as an alternative solution," noted Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "But is the state going to assume the liability for the dike?" Raising the water level "will put more pressure on the dike and raises the likelihood of failure."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the agency that's been in charge of setting the lake levels, and it's been working on a $1.6 billion repair job on the dike around it to stop it from leaking and, possibly, collapsing. It has classified the dike as one of the most vulnerable to failure in the United States. That repair job isn't scheduled to be done until 2025.

Fuller pointed out that the lake has been identified as the source of last year's toxic algae bloom. Increasing the amount of water held in it, he said, would do nothing to prevent a reoccurrence, nor would it prevent the government from eventually flushing that mixture out to the estuaries the way it does now.

Simmons' bill may be doomed anyway. Negron controls the Senate, and so far SB 816 hasn't been scheduled for a committee vote. There is no House companion — yet.

Conversely, when state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, held a meeting of his House State Affairs Committee in late February in which a discussion of Everglades restoration was on the agenda, the subject of the Negron plan never came up.

"I agree with the goal" of the Negron reservoir plan, Caldwell said in an interview. But he doesn't think building that reservoir right now is the solution to the problem.

Instead, he wants it built after most of the other projects in the comprehensive Everglades restoration plan are built, a position similar to the one held by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida. He pointed out that some of those projects had been in the works for years. One of them, he said, "is from when I was in the seventh grade."

Caldwell does like the Simmons bill, because "we need to have the flexibility to store more water during high-water events."

Sitting on the sidelines, at least for now, is Gov. Rick Scott, who has yet to take a public position on Negron's plan. But last year Scott balked at environmental groups' calls for building a reservoir on sugar land.

U.S. Sugar is one of the five largest contributors to Scott's political action committee. The company also took legislative leaders on secret hunting trips to Texas in 2014.

Negron, for his part, wouldn't predict exactly what would pass the Legislature, but he's sure that this time, something will.

"I personally believe the time for talking is over," he said.

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

For a Better Florida: Liquid heart of Florida is in trouble and Legislature split on what to do 03/02/17 [Last modified: Friday, March 3, 2017 12:22pm]
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