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UF study says more water storage needed south of Lake Okeechobee

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Environmental groups pushing for the state purchase of U.S. Sugar Corp. land south of Lake Okeechobee may have received a boost Monday when a University of Florida study said additional land is needed for water storage.

Environmental groups have been pushing the state to exercise an option to buy 46,800 acres for water storage to prevent polluted water in Lake Okeechobee from being discharged to the sensitive estuaries of St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

But Gov. Rick Scott didn’t include the purchase in his budget and the company now is expressing a reluctance to sell. Environmentalists say money from Amendment 1, the water and land funding initiative approved by voters in November, could be used to buy the U. S. Sugar land.

The Florida Senate commissioned the study by the UF Water Institute to determine how to reduce flows from Lake Okeechobee to the estuaries. The review team determined that moving more water south into the Everglades is key to protecting the estuaries.

“The solution is enormous increases in storage and treatment of water both north and south of the lake,” the study said. “Existing and currently authorized storage and treatment projects are insufficient to achieve these goals.”

Water is released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Lake Okeechobee after heavy rains to prevent flooding and the weakening of the dike around the lake.

The study said additional land is needed including possibly the U.S. Sugar land that the state negotiated a purchase option for in 2010 at fair market value. Land also could be obtained from other willing sellers or using existing state-owned land, such as the Holey Land or Rotenberger wildlife management areas.

“There is no reason why the state shouldn’t sit down with U.S. Sugar and the other sugar companies and talk about where the best storage (land is) and when and how to buy it,” Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said Monday.

State Sen. Joe Negron, who in 2013-14 chaired a Senate special committee on Lake Okeechobee and the Indian River Lagoon, said the report affirms that Florida is on the right track with Everglades restoration.

“I agree with and support the Water Institute’s recommendation that the state should consider the option to purchase 46,000 acres” of U. S. Sugar property, said Negron, R-Stuart.

Scott requested $150 million in his 2015-16 state budget for Everglades restoration and has pledged $5 billion over 20 years.

Scott has emphasized finishing projects already approved including the C-43 and C-44 reservoir storage projects to capture flow that could go to the estuaries. But the UF study says flow to the estuaries will be reduced by less than 55 percent and that less than 75 percent of Everglades water needs will be provided.

“Governor Scott is focused on completely funding existing projects, like the Kissimmee River restoration and the construction of the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs to protect our estuaries and restore the Everglades,” Scott spokeswoman Jeri Bustamante said in response to the report. “We look forward to working with stakeholders and the Legislature to identify additional storage projects.”

In addition to more water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, the plan calls for accelerating funding and completion of existing approved projects, providing water storage and treatment north of Lake Okeechobee, creating deep-well disposal for Lake Okeechobee discharges and revising water storage operations in the lake.

“Even in the face of uncertainty, many existing plans and projects have been fully vetted and can be expected to yield substantial benefits to the citizens of Florida,” the study said.

“Most of the projects are delayed because of a lack of funding. In the interim, the coupled human-ecological system is continuing to degrade in ways that may not be reversible.”

Amendment 1 is expected to provide $757 million for water and land conservation in the 2015-16 state budget and $22 billion over the next 20 years. Draper said he doesn’t know how much the U.S. Sugar land would cost the state but Audubon thinks money could be bonded for the purchase.

A spokesman for a coalition of sugar farmers that includes U.S. Sugar said the group supports the recommendations to accelerate and complete existing “shovel ready projects” — an apparent reference to projects other than the option to buy the company’s land.

“The report’s conclusions are in line with solutions that Florida’s sugar farmers have supported for years,” spokesman Brian Hughes said in a written statement.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee.

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