Amended SB10 uses state land for EAA reservoir

OKEECHOBEE — An amendment added to Florida Senate Bill 10 on April 4 calls for the South Florida Water Management District to use land the state already owns to build a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

The amended SB10 also supports storage projects planned north, east and west of the lake, promotes job growth in the communities south of Lake Okeechobee and supports programs to convert homes near waterways from septic tanks to sewer systems.

The amended SB10 passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 5.

The original SB10 required SFWMD to purchase 60,000 acres in the EAA from “willing sellers” by the end of 2017 for a storage reservoir to help reduce harmful releases from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries. If no willing sellers could be found, the first SB10 required SFWMD to exercise the state’s option to purchase U.S. Sugar holdings of 153,000 acres. That original version of the bill drew opposition to taking 60,000 acres of productive farmland out of use, which would have meant the loss of about 1,000 jobs in the Glades area.

More than 25 percent of the EAA is already in government ownership. The new version of the bill will use state land for the EAA reservoir.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Senator Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island), one of the sponsors of the amendment. “It requires north, south, east and west storage. It requires septic-to-sewer conversion over time.”

“This has been quite a journey thus far,” said Senator Bradley as he presented his amended bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“In the Glades community, there is much unemployment,” he continued.

“Every decision we make, we need to be very careful about the impact on the Glades.

“The president (Florida Senate President Joe Negron) started off with a bold idea. The core of it is that southern storage needs to happen,” he said.

“While this is a complex problem, southern storage is an important part of the solution,” he said.

“There is more than one way to achieve southern storage,” Sen. Bradley said.

“We heard from the director of the water management district that there is a lot of land owned by the district that could be better utilized,” he said.

“We heard loud and clear from our friends in the Glades.”

An EAA reservoir was already planned in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which was approved by the State of Florida and the U.S. Congress in 2000. Planning for that project is on the Integrated Delivery Schedule to start in 2021. The amended plan calls for the water management district to move up planning for the EAA reservoir to 2018.

Sen. Bradley said the ongoing CERP projects will continue to receive funding.

“We are not doing this at the expense to other projects,” he said.

He said the amendment “reconfirms our commitment to water storage north, east and west. This doesn’t work without all of them.”

Sen. Bradley said water storage is not just a problem south of the lake and that the Senate needs to look at the needs for water storage statewide.

Using existing land will cut the cost on the EAA project, he said.

Sen. Bradley said the bill also supports septic-to-sewer funding that the governor has pushed.

“That is another piece of the puzzle that has brought us here,” he said.

The development of water treatment areas is also essential, he said.

“You can have all the acre feet of storage in the world, and that’s great, but you’re not in the position to send the water into the Everglades and Florida Bay until it goes through extensive treatment,” he said.

“The real challenge is finding land for treatment. The water needs to be treated before it gets to the Everglades.

“The modeling tells us how much treatment is needed,” he said. “The goal is to limit the impact on productive agricultural land.

“It’s science that is going to drive what we do and where we go,” Sen. Bradley said.

“We need to let the people we entrust at the district to do their jobs,” he said.
The bill includes funding to promote job growth in the Glades.

Sen. Bradley said grants will be available for training programs for agricultural workers to learn new job skills.

“We also have grants for tuition for public or private vocational programs,” he added.

One example of proposed economic development is the expansion of Airglades Airport.

“This area of the state, I have heard consistently, they don’t have what they need in regard to air travel,” he said.

Expansion of the airport could allow cargo planes to bring in fresh flowers from South America. Currently these shipments come into Miami.

The Amendment to SB 10 does the following:

• Revises the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir Project to require the SFWMD to develop a plan to provide a minimum of 240,000 acre-feet of storage through a deep storage reservoir and water quality treatment features, using the A-2 parcel, land swaps and purchases. The district may consider alternate configurations using the A-1 parcel if a minimum of 360,000 acre-feet of additional storage can be achieved (60,000 acre-feet currently provided by A-1 FEB);

• Requires the SFWMD to use DMSTA2 modeling to determine the amount of acreage needed in order to meet water quality standards;

• Directs the SFWMD to negotiate modifications of lease terms on state and district-owned lands to make land available for the reservoir project;

• Directs SFWMD to negotiate for the acquisition of privately owned property if needed for the reservoir project through purchase or land swap;

• The bill terminates the current PRIDE work programs on state-owned land using inmate labor for agricultural work in light of the high unemployment rate in the EAA for these types of jobs. This land would then be available to swap for any privately owned land needed for the reservoir project further minimizing any impact on agricultural workers in the EAA;

• Establishes a number of timelines for achieving milestones for approval of the post-authorization change report and requires reporting to the Legislature;

• Moves up the date for the EAA reservoir project planning study to commence if Congressional approval of the post-authorization change report has not occurred;

• Clarifies that ongoing Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects will continue to receive funding.

• Authorizes the district to begin planning and discussion with the owners of the C-51 Reservoir project to determine if the state should acquire or enter into a public private partnership for this water storage facility that will add approximately 60,000 acre-feet of storage south of the Lake.

• Establishes the Everglades Restoration Agricultural Community Training Program in DEO for the purpose of stimulating and supporting training and employment programs, to match state and local training programs with identified job skills associated with non-agricultural employment opportunities in areas of high agricultural unemployment.  The bill expresses the Legislature’s intent to promote the implementation of the Airglades Airport in Hendry County and an inland port in Palm Beach County to create job opportunities in areas of high agricultural unemployment.

• Establishes a revolving loan fund to provide funding assistance to local governments and water supply entities for the development and construction of water storage facilities.

• Revises the uses of the Water Protection and Sustainability Program Trust Fund to include the water storage facility revolving loan program.

• Provides funding for the reservoir projects, including an authorization to bond funds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF). The total cost is reduced from $2.4 billion to approximately $1.5 billion, half of which could be paid by the federal government. The amendment includes an appropriation of $64 million from the LATF for the 2017-18 Fiscal Year.

• Allows for funds not spent on the reservoir projects to be used for other Everglades Restoration projects as provided in Legacy Florida.

“I’m not saying don’t do southern storage. It’s a part of it. But first things first. Follow the plan. Fix the dike,” said Sen. David Simmons (R-Longwood).

“I saw this bill one time and I was the lone ‘no’ vote,” said Senator Oscar Braytn (D-Miami Gardens). “I think the bill we are voting on today is very different from the bill I voted ‘no’ to in committee.” He said he supports the bill as amended and looks forward to working out the details on the job training aspects of the bill.

Raise the lake level?

Sen. Simmons (R-Seminole County). offered his own amendment to SB 10, but found no support for it.

“This large project encompasses all of the area from Orlando south to Florida Bay,” said Senator David Simmons (R-Seminole County).

“First things first, fix the Herbert Hoover Dike,” he said.

“The Herbert Hoover Dike is essential,” Sen. Simmons continued.

“This dike is a Level 1 dam,” he said. “A level 1 dam is the most dangerous in the United States because of its instability.

“This dike is a life safety issue,” he said.

He said they need to expedite dike repairs in order to allow the lake to hold more water.

Raising the lake level by one foot would have prevented the need to release water to the coastal estuaries in 2016, he continued.

“If you fix the dike, you will be able to determine how much you need to the south and how much you need to the north,” he said.

Under the current Army Corps of Engineers Schedule, the dike repairs will be completed in 2025, he said.

“You need immediate solutions to an immediate problem, you do first things first,” he said.

“If the Corps of Engineers doesn’t have enough money, what I suggest is that we help and we fund it,” he said.

“Fix the dike and change the regulation schedule,” Sen. Simmons proposed.

“You don’t have to wait 25 years for a solution. Do it now, and the state can assist,” he said.

The federal government is currently funding dike repairs which are solely their responsibility. If the state helped with funding, the work could be completed sooner, Sen. Simmons said.

“The way my amendment reads, it doesn’t say that we’re going to give the money and not get it back,” he said.

“We can do the northern storage, start the study right now, and go ahead and start studying what we’re going to do south of the lake,” he said. “The Corps of Engineers has said if they do the northern storage, they can reduce the discharges by 50 percent,” he said.

In the public comment period, Leland Garvin reminded the senators that Lake Okeechobee is a living, breathing ecology.

“It is not a reservoir with a wall you can raise to hold water,” he said.

The legislation continues to prohibit the use of eminent domain, leveraging land already owned by the State of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), land swaps, and purchases, to minimize impacts on agricultural workers while achieving 240,000 to 360,000 acre feet of storage. The amendment also provides grants to establish training programs for agricultural workers.

“We have incorporated the feedback gained from months of conversations with the agricultural community, scientists, business owners, community advocates, and others to develop a meaningful solution to address the plague of harmful discharges, while at the same time taking steps to improve the economic circumstances of our fellow citizens who live in communities south of the Lake,” said Sen. Bradley.

“I promised my constituents that we would dramatically expand southern storage by leveraging existing water infrastructure, and utilizing a combination of state, local, and private land, in a manner that respects the interests of the agricultural community and private land owners,” said Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart). “This legislation will ensure we achieve that goal and provide measurable results in a reasonable amount of time.”

“The status quo is not acceptable for anyone. The harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee are causing horrible impacts to the health of both our citizens and our economy East and West of the Lake. Meanwhile, communities like Pahokee, Belle Glade, and South Bay are facing extremely high levels of unemployment, while a great many families are living in poverty,” continued President Negron. “Strategic southern storage addresses the environmental and economic challenges facing communities, families, and businesses on all sides of the lake.”

Judy Sanchez, Senior Director Corporate Communications & Public Affairs for U.S. Sugar said the amendment is a step in the right direction.

“This amendment makes significant progress and demonstrates that the Florida Senate has begun taking seriously the concerns of residents from communities south of Lake Okeechobee. The decision to no longer take 60,000 to 153,000 acres of farmland out of production is a positive step forward. While the amendment improves the bill, there are significant concerns related to the arbitrary timelines for the southern storage reservoir, which appear to conflict with the current timing of the federally-authorized projects in the Integrated Delivery Schedule,” she said.

“We agree with Senator Negron that science should continue to guide this bill, and we look forward to providing additional input on developing science-based solutions that actually will reduce the harmful discharges and build real solutions that work for all of our communities.”

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg stated, “Revisions to Senate Bill 10 have removed opponents’ objections to this bill and we believe this legislation is not only positioned for ultimate passage, but also for delivering positive impact on the restoration of America’s Everglades. Under revisions to the legislation by Senator Bradley and Appropriations Committee Chairman Senator Jack Latvala, the legislation provides for science to decide which lands, public and private, will be used for the reservoir project.”

The South Florida Water Management District issued a statement Thursday: “The Governor and the Legislature set and amend policy. However, the current policy supported by the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board is to follow the schedule of projects known as the Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS).”

Record rainfall in 2016 resulted in unseasonably high water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which threatened the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. To maintain safe water levels, the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the release of billions of gallons of water from the Lake to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. The freshwater discharges lowered the salinity levels of the estuaries making them vulnerable to algae blooms.

LOWP could cut harmful lake releases by half

OKEECHOBEE — A public workshop at Indian River State College in Okeechobee on April 4 highlighted the projects under consideration for Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration, which is also part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Plan (LOWP) objectives are:

• Improve quantity, timing and distribution of flows into Lake Okeechobee to maintain ecologically desired lake stage ranges;

• Improve the salinity regime and the quality of oyster, submerged aquatic vegetation, and other estuarine community habitats in the northern estuaries;

• Increase spatial extent and functionality of wetland habitat throughout the Lake Okeechobee watershed; and,

• (Proposed scope addition) Increase water supply availability for existing permitted water users of Lake Okeechobee.

LOWP features

LOWP projects include a reservoir, wetlands, and aquifer storage recovery (ASR) wells. According to information presented Tuesday. All of the reservoir sites currently under consideration are west of the Kissimmee River.

LOWP proposals also include deep injection wells (DIWs) which would provide an outlet for excess Lake Okeechobee water during high rain events.

DIWs would be used strategically only when regulatory Lake Okeechobee releases are being triggered by high water levels, thus diverting portions of excess flows into DIWs, rather than discharging to the estuaries. Using DIWs ejects water deep into the boulder zone, and in effect sends the water to tide.

Water pumped into DIWs cannot be recovered, so this option would only be used to protect the estuaries when other water storage options are full.

Potential Florida wetlands sites.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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