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Negron’s Lake Okeechobee plan absorbs additional water resources projects

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Senate President Joe Negron‘s plan to build reservoirs south of Lake Okeechobee got bigger Wednesday, when a budget subcommittee voted to raise the price tag from $1.2 billion to more than $3 billion and fold in water resources projects around the state.

SB 10, as amended by the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources, would also extend preferences for jobs building the reservoirs to agricultural workers displaced by taking the land out of farming.

The panel passed the bill with a single no vote, from ranking Democrat Oscar Braynon II, who worried those replacement jobs would prove only temporary. But even he suggested he could come on board if future amendments fully “recognize that there is a community that is suffering” south of the lake.

Asked following the meeting about the bill’s growth, including the addition of the jobs preferences and other economic-justice provisions, Chairman Rob Bradley said they emerged from past hearings on Negron’s signature project.

“Whether it becomes a part of this bill or a separate bill … remains to be seen,” Bradley told reporters. “But it is an issue that the people have spoken, and we need to address it.”

Bradley conceded there’s little taste in the Legislature for floating bonded debt just now. Florida has been paying as it goes for water projects, he said.

“I would suggest to you that, from the Senate’s standpoint, with money being as cheap as it is right now, if there’s something of critical state need, then we need to explore bonding,” he said.

In any event, the bill would not increase Florida’s bonding authority, but rather shift that authority among various trust funds.

The need is great, Bradley said, pointing to recent sewage discharges in Tampa Bay, drought in the Everglades, and problems with the state’s rivers and springs.

The amended bill, for example, would provide $35 million for projects along the St. John’s River, and $20 million to improve sewage plants near the Indian River, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

The measure calls for acquisition of 60,000 acres to construct as many as two above-ground reservoirs capable of storing 360,000 acre-feet of water. It bars use of eminent domain for that’s aquisition. Sugar properties south of the lake agreed to sell land there to the state in 2010, although they now opposed the project.

It envisions a state loan program to help local governments build water storage facilities, with the priority given to areas at risk of saltwater intrusion, excessive drawdowns, or pollution. And it calls for grants financing waste water reuse programs.

Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties in June after alage blooms sent what Bradley referred to as “guacamole water” into rivers, estuaries and lagoons.

The toxic, smelly discharges damaged local economies and sickened people, as many members of an overflow audience in the committee room testified. Many of them were small business owners, boat captains, and fishing guides.

Committee member Debbie Mayfield told her colleagues that her son spent a week in the hospital on an IV antibiotic drip after suffering an infection through exposure to the tainted water. He might have lost his foot, she said.

Others complained that the bill would cost farm jobs in struggling areas south of the lake. One speaker compared the potential to “genocide.” Larger economic forces, including sugar interests and Associated Industries of Florida, also spoke against the bill.

Bradley stressed to reporters that the session is only in its second day, and that he expects the language to evolve during subsequent committee meetings and on the Senate floor.

“This continues to be a work in progress. It has already changed from where we started to where we are now,” he said.

He’s not opposed to siting reservoirs north of the lake as well, but stressed that the state has long planned to acquire the capacity to store water to the south, as well.

“It’s not unreasonable to speed up one element of an overall plan, just as long as you don’t do it to the exclusion of some other elements that we will continue to fund,” Bradley said.

“Expanding the scope of the bill was a response to the feedback I received from the members of the committee and senators who don’t sit on this committee,” he said.

“It needs to be a statewide concern of dealing with water resource issues — of making sure we have enough resources for or families and businesses. Making sure we have water to grow food, and to make sure these springs and rivers that we’ve been blessed with by God don’t dry up, because that would not be fair to future Floridians.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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