TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Senate President Joe Negron's plan to buy farmland south of Lake Okeechobee to try to prevent the return of toxic algae blooms in Treasure Coast waterways drew unanimous support Tuesday at its first Senate committee.
Still, Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican sponsoring the measure (SB 10), acknowledged the proposal for a 60,000-acre reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area --- opposed by farmers, residents and politicians south of the lake --- isn't the only solution, a view expressed by other members of the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee.
After 90 minutes of public testimony, Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who was chairing the meeting, called the bill --- which doesn't have a House counterpart --- "a starting point."
"We really haven't seen any other ideas, specifically laid out, as alternatives," Latvala said. "We have two houses in this process. It certainly would be great to know if the House doesn't think there is a problem in South Florida that needs to be handled, on either the Southwest coast or Southeast coast, or that they have a different way of handling it."
Negron's plan is designed to move water south to the reservoir instead of sending polluted discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Discharges have occurred into the waterways when water levels in the lake have become too high.
Among other potential options or additions is $60 million that Gov. Rick Scott included in his proposed budget to help homeowners switch from septic tanks to sewer systems and the possibility of building reservoirs to handle water from Central Florida before it reaches the lake.
"The governor is absolutely right, septic tanks are a part of the problem," Bradley told reporters after the meeting. "So that needs to be a part of the solution. Southern storage is not a silver bullet. It's part of a many-faceted approach. … And it's something that we need to be mindful of, along with northern storage and other things."
But Bradley appeared skeptical of a proposal that Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, intends to put forward as an amendment or a stand-alone bill that would offer a $1 billion interest-free loan to the federal government to speed up repair work on the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
"The federal government's responsibility is to repair that dike, and we will continue to encourage them to address both repairing the dike and the schedule of water releases that can remain in the lake," Bradley said.
Simmons believes if the federal government accepted the loan the dike repairs could be completed in two to three years, rather than the near decade currently projected if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were to secure the $800 million estimated to finish the work.
Simmons said allowing the lake to hold more water would reduce releases that have been blamed for the polluted water conditions in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
"During those heavy rainy times the Corps, as well as the South Florida Water Management District, would have the flexibility to not have to do the discharges," Simmons said of his proposal.
Simmons said he'd like the state-backed repairs to exceed the federal work, raising the maximum water level in the lake from just over 17 feet to 19 feet, providing nearly the same storage as Negron's reservoir proposal.
Eric Draper, Audubon Florida's executive director, called Simmons' proposal "a horrible idea."
"It would destroy the lake's ecosystem," Draper said. "It would expose Florida to enormous financial risk. And the amount of money he is talking about spending would only repair the dike to the current safety level and would do nothing to allow the dike to hold more water."
In his argument, Simmons said the Senate needs to consider alternatives as the proposal by Negron and Bradley would take many years to complete.
Under Bradley's bill, the state would bond $100 million a year through money voters approved for land preservation in 2014. The federal government would have to approve half the money for the project.
The Senate bill would also direct Scott and the Cabinet to exercise an option from a 2010 agreement signed by former Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sugar that requires the state to purchase 153,209 acres if "willing sellers" are not found for the land Negron is seeking.
Such an acquisition wouldn't be easy.
The South Florida Water Management District --- now headed by Pete Antonacci, who formerly served as Scott's general counsel --- voted in 2015 to terminate an option to buy 46,800 acres under the 2010 deal, with board members rejecting calls that the U.S. Sugar land was the only solution to cleaning South Florida waters.
A group of larger sugar farmers, including U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals Corp., announced Monday they would not be willing sellers, a sentiment repeated before the committee on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, House leaders have said they are opposed to bonding, and Scott didn't include funding for the land purchases in his $83.5 billion budget proposal.
On Tuesday, the committee heard from a stream of residents, businesspeople and local government officials, both for and against Bradley's bill.
Proponents of the bill said businesses are already suffering from the algae blooms that have become a recurring feature in recent years on the Treasure Coast and that the storage would result in cleaner water moving into the Everglades and Florida Bay.
People inland and south of the lake, called the bill "a big government land grab," expressing fears of increased unemployment if the farmland was taken out of production for the reservoir.
Latvala said he intends to ensure Bradley's measure includes an economic-development component to help residents south of the lake who could be impacted by the land purchase.
"If we're going to hurt jobs from one direction, we're going to help provide some jobs from another direction," Latvala said.