Senate Bill 10 calls for $2.4 billion reservoir

OKEECHOBEE — On Thursday, Jan. 26, Senator Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island), Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources, filed Senate Bill 10, Water Resources.

The legislation authorizes bonding a portion of proceeds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, set aside by the voter-approved Water and Land Conservation Amendment (Amendment 1, 2014), to purchase land and construct a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

Former Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor, one of the founders of Glades Lives Matter, was quick to respond to the proposed legislation.

“Senate Bill 10 is an outrage and a betrayal to the people who live and work in the communities south of Lake Okeechobee,” she said. “It’s a plan based on fake science that will not even solve the discharge problems on the coasts.

This was pushed by some very wealthy outsiders who view Florida as their playground and Floridians as their servants. If passed it will destroy agriculture, punish farmers, disrupt communities and displace people south of Lake Okeechobee. This is a sad day for the people in the Glades communities. Our voices were not heard nor were our communities respected on this day, but we will continue to fight this misguided plan.”

“Despite the sincere efforts of our state and federal government to plan and fund long-term solutions to address rising water levels and pollution in Lake Okeechobee, year after year as the Lake levels rise, the solution is to flood my community and many others across our state with billions of gallons of polluted water that destroys our estuaries and harms our local economies,” said Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart) in a press release issued Jan. 26.

Record rainfall this past year 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. Such freshwater discharges lower the salinity levels of the estuaries. According to testimony at the Senate Appropriations sub-committee hearings, algae in these freshwater releases seeded algae growth which fed on nutrients already present in the watershed, exploding into a massive algal bloom.

“These algal blooms have occurred before and will occur again unless high volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee are stopped,” said Senator Bradley. “Algal blooms are not simply an unsightly nuisance for residents and tourists, they bring real health risks to humans and wildlife and result in severe economic damage to local businesses.”

The extent and severity of the blooms resulted in Governor Scott declaring a state of emergency in four Florida counties.

“For nearly two decades, there has been scientific consensus and recognition by state leaders that additional water storage south of Lake Okeechobee is necessary to stop this ongoing problem; from Governor Jeb Bush’s historic support of the bipartisan Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000; to the recent University of Florida Water Institute study commissioned by the Senate and completed in 2015,” continued President Negron. “This legislation provides a clear plan to address this plague on our communities in a manner that respects the interests of the agricultural community and private land owners.”

“The projects planned and under way are absolutely necessary and must be continued. Unfortunately, current projects fail to include one significant component that the majority of scientists and experts uniformly agree on — a long-term solution requires additional land and storage south of Lake Okeechobee,” continued Senator Bradley. “This legislation implements the constitution by using Amendment 1 funds, funds Florida voters dedicated to improving our environment, to address a critical and ongoing problem that impacts our residents, visitors, business, economy and quality of life.”

Senate Bill 10 authorizes the issuance of bonds to raise over a billion dollars to acquire 60,000 acres of land and build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

Does the math add up?

According to Sen. Bradley’s press release, the reservoir is “expected to hold 120 billion gallons of water, approximately as much water as was discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary between January and May of 2016.”

While that statement is accurate, it might also be a little misleading, as the wet season traditionally runs June-November.

At the Wednesday, Jan. 25 Senate appropriations sub-committee hearing, former SFWMD director, Ernie Barnett, now representing the Florida Land Council, said the proposed reservoir would hold only about 15 percent of the water released to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie in 2016. He said due to the extremely wet summer, in 2016 about 2.9 million acre feet of water drained into Lake Okeechobee, primarily from the north.

An acre foot is the amount of water to cover one acre, one foot deep. Mr. Barnett said at the same time water was being sent east and west from the lake, over 5 million acre feet of water flowed into the Everglades, much of it from rainfall south of the lake.

For reference, 1.2 billion gallons is about 368,266 acre feet.

One reason for difference in calculations is that while Senator Bradley’s statement only considers the water sent east to the St. Lucie during the first five months of the year, Mr. Barnett referred to the total freshwater from Lake Okeechobee that flowed to the both the St. Lucie and to the Calooshatchee Rivers during the entire year.

According to the South Florida Water Management District data, from Jan. 1, 2016 to May 31, 2016, 277.2 billion gallons was released to the Caloosahatchee and 122.3 billion gallons was released from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie for a total of 399.5 billion gallons during that five-month period.

So while a 120 billion gallon reservoir would hold nearly all of the water released from the lake to the St. Lucie during the first five months of the year; it would only hold about 30 percent of the freshwater released from the lake to both coastal estuaries during that same time frame. That same reservoir would only hold about 15 percent of the freshwater released from the lake to the coastal estuaries from Jan. 1 to Nov. 20, 2016.
$2.4 billion price tag

According to Senator Bradley’s press release, the estimated cost of a reservoir on 60,000 acres of land providing 120 billion gallons of storage in the area south of Lake Okeechobee is roughly $2.4 billion. If the federal government pays at least half of the cost of such a reservoir, the state’s commitment would be $1.2 billion. The bill authorizes the use of approximately $100 million of documentary stamp tax revenue set aside by the Water and Land Conversation Amendment (Amendment 1, 2014) annually over the next 20 years to finance land acquisition and construction of the reservoir.

The bill directs the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to begin the formal process of purchasing land from willing sellers. The project is subject to Congressional approval to secure the 50/50 cost sharing agreement authorized for other Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects.

What if there are no willing sellers?

If the SFWMD is unable to identify sellers of land appropriate for a reservoir through an open solicitation by the end of CY 2017, the legislation authorizes the Board of Trustees to exercise the option with U.S. Sugar entered into in 2010 to buy 153,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

The 2010 agreement gave the state a 10-year option on the 153,000 acres.

“My goal in filing this legislation is to explore all available options for the voluntary purchase of land to deliver this much needed and long anticipated storage south of Lake Okeechobee” said Senator Bradley. “I am willing to explore all ideas for adding this important component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan now. Nearly half way through the original timeline of CERP, less than 20 percent of the estimated total cost has been funded. It is time to invest in additional projects needed to complete the plan and that is exactly what the voters have been trying to tell us in passing Amendment 1.”

If the state is ultimately unable to purchase land for the reservoir by Nov. 30, 2018, the legislation increases the ongoing Legacy Florida appropriation by an additional $50 million for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which includes a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area as a key component. This is in addition to Legacy Florida’s existing commitment of $200 million. Legacy Florida also requires preference among these projects to be given to projects that reduce the harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee Estuaries.

In a statement issued Friday, the South Florida Water Management District responded to the legislation: “Everglades restoration is progressing. Guided by science, public participation, and with policy direction from the Governor and Florida Legislature, the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board is committed to attaining restoration goals. The board is implementing the current project schedule, but will adjust that schedule as the Governor and the Legislature direct.”

Ministers respond

Emotion runs high south of Lake Okeechobee when someone suggests taking more farm land out of production. At the Jan. 25 Florida Senate hearing, Guardians of the Glades representative Tammy Jackson-Moore said the Everglades Agricultural Area has already lost 100,000 acres of farm land, which caused three sugar mills to close. She said taking another 60,000 acres out of production would be devastating to the Glades communities.

The Clewiston Ministerial Association issued a decree last week asking for a “spiritual decree of blessings and economic prosperity over our Sweet Land of Liberty in Canal Point, Belle Glades, South Bay, Lake Harbor, Clewiston and Moore Haven.

“We will no longer sit in silence as environmental elitists seek to destroy our embattled farmers and seize valuable and irreplaceable farmlands that will devastate entire generations of families,” the Ministerial Association decree states.

“These manipulating measures have tossed our communities to and fro one time too many.

“We say enough. It is time for us to stand together against those who wish to flood our towns and way of life and render what we value as a desolate place.”

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

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