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Joe Negron’s Lake Okeechobee plan clears Senate Appropriations Committee

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Senate President Joe Negron’s ambitious water-quality plan survived a more-than-two-hour hearing before the Appropriations Committee Wednesday, clearing the panel against only two dissents.

The $1.5 billion bill would begin planning to build reservoirs and water treatment facilities south of Lake Okeechobee in hopes of avoiding repeats of June’s disastrous algae bloom in South Florida waterways.

The “No” votes came from Sens. Jeff Brandes and Denise Grimsley.

“I am very grateful for the input from my colleagues, constituents and fellow citizens across Florida as we work to advance this critical piece of legislation,” said Negron said in a written statement following the vote.

“After 20 years of talking about southern storage, the time to act is now. This legislation will make an important difference to families, communities, and the economy east and west of the Lake, as well as southern communities who have waited too long for investments in meaningful economic development to expand workforce training and job opportunities,” he’s said.

“Our goal was to explore all available options to deliver this much-needed and long-anticipated storage south of Lake Okeechobee,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, who shepherded the bill through committee, with a late assist from budget chairman Jack Latvala.

“The legislation now advancing to the Senate floor provides a solution to the plague of harmful, polluted discharges and toxic blue-green algae that respects the interests of the agricultural community and the rights of private land owners, while achieving our goal to dramatically increase southern storage,” Bradley said.

Democratic leader Oscar Braynon, who cast the lone “No” against the bill in committee out of concern for farmworker jobs, said he appreciated the leadership’s outreach to the ‘Glades community — dozens of whom attended the hearing.

“This bill we’re voting on today is very different than the bill I voted on in committee,” Braynon said.

Sen. Audrey Gibson voted “Yes” even though she said she would welcome greater specificity regarding the bill’s job-training component.

“I think my family’s still waiting for that 40 acres,” she said.

As the debate dragged on, with a heavy agenda of additional bills awaiting, Sen. David Simmons tested Latvala’s patience with a lengthy argument in favor of focusing on repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which he said has been awaiting those improvements for a quarter century.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowered the later level in the lake in 2008 for fear the dam would fail. Repairs would return about 564 acre-feet of capacity, Simmons said.

“Let’s go ahead and fix the damn dike,” Simmons said, to murmurs of approval by the Everglades group.

Having made his point, he then withdrew the amendment; they applauded.

SB 10 scales back the footprint of Negron’s original concept bur still would store between 100 billion and 120 billion gallons of water by increasing the reservoirs’ depth to 14 feet.

The plan is designed to stop discharges of toxic, algae-laden “guacamole water” from the lake into other waterways, as happened in June, that can sicken both people and the tourism economy.

The bill would save money by building the project on land already owned by the state, or where private landowners agree to sell or lease to the state. It forbids use of eminent domain to acquire property.

The total cost would shrink from $2.4 billion to $1.5 billion, with $750 million the state’s share.

The plan would absorb Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to replace septic systems north of the Lake with sewage systems. Additional reservoir capacity would go in north of the lake.

First-year costs would be $64 million, with up to $100 million in Land Acquisition Trust Fund money raised in subsequent years through approval of up to $1.2 billion in bonding capacity.

The South Florida Water Management District would conduct scientific studies to design the project, including water treatment areas.

The bill includes jobs projects to employ displaced agricultural workers. They include construction and maintenance of the reservoirs, improvements to Clewiston’s airport and an inland port, and half-dozen infrastructure projects contained in separate legislation.

And it would end the practice of using inmate labor on agricultural land.

The bill calls for “substantial progress on plan approval” and initial land acquisition by Jan. 9, 2018, and plan approval by Oct. 1, 2018.

As for the jobs language, Latvala attempted to salve concern by noting he has supported jobs in the area for three years. The Senate budget, he continued, includes money for a new police station in Clewiston to create jobs.

“It’s not just starting today to think about the future,” Latvala said.

“I hear doubt in your voice about whether or not we are going to carry forth with this commitment. There shouldn’t be,” he said

Braynon hastened to reassure Latvala.

“I just wanted to make sure they knew there was no hoodwink,” he said, referring to the Okeechobee-area residents.

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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