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Negron water storage plan teed up in Senate

20-year proposal filed by Sen. Rob Bradley

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A measure to bond $100 million a year in voter-approved dollars for the purchase of 60,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee --- land that owners have expressed an unwillingness to sell --- was introduced Thursday in the Senate.

The 20-year proposal (SB 10), filed by Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, advances a $2.4 billion plan by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to try to halt polluted water releases out of Lake Okeechobee and reduce the reappearance of swirling green algae that has coated waterways in parts of the Treasure Coast in the past.

"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," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said in a prepared statement.

The farmland would be used to store and clean up to 120 billion gallons of water and reduce releases from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Problems with polluted water going into the St. Lucie Estuary are a huge issue in the Treasure Coast region, which includes much of Negron's district.

Negron also pointed to potential benefits for the Everglades.

"Storing water during the wet season provides the additional benefit of allowing water to be sent south to hydrate the Everglades and Florida Bay, or for agricultural use, during the dry season," Negron said in a memo that accompanied a release on Bradley's bill.

But the land-purchase proposal has received a mixed response from residents, officials and scientists during Senate hearings this month. The sugar industry which dominates the region and which once supported selling the land, has lately opposed such proposals.

"Senate Bill 10, which would purchase 60,000 acres of additional farmland, is the most expensive and least effective idea with the longest timeline of all available options for reducing lake discharges," U.S. Sugar Corp. spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said in a statement Thursday. "It is not supported by the science, not wanted by the agencies and would destroy at least another thousand jobs in our communities."

Also, shortly after the bill was filed, House Speaker Richard Corcoran reaffirmed that, while he supports efforts to clean state waters, "the House is not prepared to bond."

"The fact that you're bonding, is it because you are saying the government needs more money for 'X?' " the Land O' Lakes Republican asked. "I think that the House has been vocal that we do not need more money. We have a spending problem."

The Senate proposal would rely on money from the state Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which is being used to carry out a 2014 constitutional amendment. In that amendment, voters approved setting aside money from an existing real-estate tax for 20 years to finance the purchase and preservation of state lands.

Bradley's measure, which would require a federal financial match, also would direct the South Florida Water Management District to begin the formal process of buying the land from "willing sellers."

If a sale or exchange of land can be achieved, the district would have to "immediately begin" work on the reservoir.

If landowners remain unwilling sellers at the end of this year, the legislation would authorize Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet to exercise an option that U.S. Sugar entered into in 2010 on the exchange of 153,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

If the state is still unable to acquire the land for the reservoir by Nov. 30, 2018, the legislation would call for the 20-year, $200 million a year allocation for Everglades projects that lawmakers earmarked last year --- known as "Legacy Florida" --- to be bumped to $250 million. The additional money would be directed into a 2000 congressional plan to restore the Everglades known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Bradley's bill quickly drew praise from the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida.

"The tragedies facing Florida's coastal estuaries in 2016 were devastating to local economies and the environment. Floridians are hungry for this type of bold action to save Florida's Everglades," said Eric Draper, Audubon Florida's executive director. "After hearing from experts about water storage solutions, Sen. Bradley's actions show that a 'wait and see' approach for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee is not acceptable."

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said the proposal would reduce the harmful discharges to the estuaries and preserve water for the dry seasons.

"Last year's events --- which affected Floridians and tourists alike and resulted in local businesses and beaches closing, jobs being lost, property values declining and loved ones getting sick from the toxic algae that plagued our waterways --- should serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting our water, now and in the long term," Eikenberg said.

Bradley has filed a separate bill (SB 234) for the current year that would set aside $35 million annually from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the St. Johns River, its tributaries or lakes in the Keystone Heights region in North Florida.

Last year's "Legacy Florida" plan also allocates $50 million a year for the state's natural springs and $5 million each year for Lake Apopka, all from the trust fund.

However, a coalition called "Stand Up for North Florida," which includes two state House members and a former congressman, announced opposition earlier this week to Negron's new proposal, saying a more equitable distribution of money is needed statewide from the voter-approved trust fund.

Also this month, 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 said Jan. 11. "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."