TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida already has enough land for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, the head of the South Florida Water Management District said Wednesday as lawmakers began to ponder a $2.4 billion water redirection proposal intended to reduce toxic algae blooms on the east and west coasts.
Pete Antonacci, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, said the state needs to focus first on completing storage areas that will help raise the water level in the Kissimmee River valley, reducing the flow into the lake from the north, and could use farmland it already owns south of the lake for the additional storage.
"We don't need to buy any more land," Antonacci told reporters after addressing the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. "We have land that could be purposed for that. That's my board's position right now. Policy could change. If policy changes, the board will salute the flag and move forward."
Antonacci's comments came after the first hearing on Senate President Joe Negron's ambitious proposal to buy 60,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee as part of an effort to send more water south, reducing polluted lake discharges into waterways to the east and west.
The plan has drawn opposition from sugar farmers south of Lake Okeechobee, leaders from Glades areas who look to the farmlands for jobs, and some North Florida politicians concerned Negron's plan could potentially shift money away from protecting waters in northern parts of the state.
Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Chairman Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said additional fact-finding will continue in the coming weeks with agriculture interests, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Everglades Foundation before panel members begin discussing how to move forward with Negron's proposal. The Everglades Foundation supports the proposal.
"This isn't just one thing, this isn't just buying land south of the lake or using existing land for reservoirs south of the lake," Bradley said after the meeting. "We have northern storage issues. We have all the various basins and how we handle the water from those areas. We have septic tank takedowns. So this is a comprehensive approach to a very complicated problem."
Bradley said he's working with Negron.
"There is zero daylight between President Negron and I as far as our concern for what has happened and our urgency to move forward and what we need to accomplish," Bradley said.
Negron's proposal is to buy sugar-industry land as part of an effort to store and clean water and reduce releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.
The plan would require a 50-50 funding match between the state and federal government to buy the land, with the state's portion involving the bonding of $100 million annually from documentary-stamp tax revenue in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 to set aside money in the trust fund for 20 years to finance the purchase and preservation of state lands.
The need to send water south wasn't disputed by experts who addressed the board on Wednesday.
Wendy Graham, director of the University of Florida Water Institute, said about 1 million acre feet of storage north or south of the lake is needed to reduce discharges to the east into the St. Lucie River and west into the Caloosahatchee River. But she advocated for storage both north and south of the lake, along with moving more water south into the Everglades.
"We need to rehydrate the Everglades, they're not receiving enough water, high quality water to sustain the ecosystem," Graham said. "Too much water is going east and west, not enough water is going south to restore the ecosystem as was intended by the original restoration."
Part of the need for the releases has been decisions by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cap water levels in Lake Okeechobee as the federal agency works to complete repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake.
Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, deputy district commander for South Florida, said the remaining work to bulk up the barrier and build new water-control structures, estimated at $800 million, is projected to be completed by 2025.
"We fully recognize the importance of this work," Reynolds said. "And I want to give you every assurance that we're moving forward on these efforts as quickly as possible."
Asked by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, if the project could be done quicker if the state contributed to the costs, Reynolds replied that the work is slated to be 100 percent federally funded.
Mayfield said she's willing to consider the cost-effectiveness in the state helping with the dike improvements.
"Is it better to put money there and improve the dike or to buy land and do projects?" Mayfield said after the meeting. "You can't make those decisions if you don't have the information."