Incoming Senate President Negron’s Gutsy Water Plan Has Merits

Aug 28, 2016 by

Before the Zika virus dominated the national news about Florida, the bluish-green algae on Florida’s Suncoast did. The algae formed after massive releases of nutrient-laden water flowed into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers from Lake Okeechobee.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for releasing the water. The state is responsible for Florida’s water quality. Fingers were pointed in both directions.

To be clear, the Army Corps controls releases based on its determination of how much the massive Lake Okeechobee can safely hold without risking flooding. Complicating that decision is the questionable structural integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake. State and federal partners have known for many years that the system of dikes is degraded and in need of reinforcing.

The state has allowed polluted water to enter many of our lakes, rivers, bays and estuaries, including Lake Okeechobee.

A decade ago, the governor and other elected officials focused on water quality, Everglades’ restoration, and land acquisition by spending $300 million a year under Florida Forever. There was a long-term commitment to protect and restore Florida’s natural resources and quality of life.

Despite warnings from scientists, local governments and the environmental community, there was a major shift in the mindset and actions of elected officials. Florida Forever funding disappeared, water management budgets were slashed and the Department of Community Affairs—overseeing sustainable growth management efforts—was abolished.

Improperly installed or maintained septic tanks have leached into our water bodies. Natural systems that filter polluted surface waters have been altered. Water treatment projects, restoration projects, and land acquisition have slowed to a trickle. Regulations have been slashed and the state has fought the federal government over water quality standards.

Angered by the state’s blatant disregard of protecting our natural resources, Florida voters in 2014 overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment forcing the state to invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually in land acquisition and management and restoration projects. Last year alone, over $750 million was supposed to be spent.

The Florida Legislature has found creative ways to ignore the intent of the voters and shift funds while still claiming to have legally complied.

We need environmental heroes in positions of power. It’s not going to be the governor—not for at least two years, when voters get another chance to choose one.

Enter state Sen. Joe Negron, an experienced legislator from Stuart who will soon be sworn in as Senate president. Negron served in both the House and Senate and has been Budget chairman in each chamber. Negron comes from the area most affected by the water releases and fish-killing algae bloom.

In June Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and, other than demanding the federal government do something, offered little in the way of a long-term solution.

In August Sen. Negron announced his plan to divert and store water south of Lake Okeechobee. It requires buying 60,000 acres of mostly sugar land and building a reservoir to hold 120 billion gallons of water. This would prevent polluted water from being released into the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. It would also help keep Lake Okeechobee’s water at a safe level for the Hoover dike to hold.

This is a bold and ambitious plan with a hefty price tag.

The cost is estimated at $2.4 billion. Negron wants the federal government to pay half—the first hurdle. The owners of the land don’t appear to be willing sellers—his second hurdle. Gov. Scott does not seem to be on board—the third hurdle. Other players—the Army Corps, water management districts and the Florida House—are not yet showing enthusiasm for the plan.

Residents and businesses affected by the toxic algae bloom cheered Negron’s plan, as did many in the environmental community.

It does have its merits. It protects fragile ecosystems, reduces potential flooding risks, and provides storage from Lake Okeechobee releases, thus lessening the need to fortify the dikes.

The devil’s in the details. Have we identified the best lands for storage? Are we looking at a fair price and not another sweetheart deal like we gave U.S. Sugar? Does it include any treatment or natural filtration to improve the quality of the water?

Negron’s plan doesn’t solve all of the state’s water woes but it’s a concrete proposal—more constructive than pointing fingers and shrugging shoulders.

Kudos to incoming Senate President Joe Negron for having the guts to tackle the problem and to incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran for indicating a willingness to consider Negron’s proposal.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.



All columns are (c) Paula Dockery | No reprint rights to whole columns are ever granted without express permission. | To syndicate Paula Dockery's columns please write to PBDockery@gmail.com