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Water bill goes to governor

By Staff | May 10, 2017

The Florida House passed a bill last Tuesday that’s a step in the right direction for “Send the Water South” advocates.

But as Daniel Andrews, Captains for Clean Water co-founder, said on the organization’s blog Tuesday: “We’re not popping champagne bottles until we can float from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.”

Senate Bill 10 (SB-10) was born out of a $2.4 billion-plan to buy 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee from agricultural companies unveiled by Senator Joe Negron last year. The bill itself was introduced by Senators Rob Bradley and Anitere Flores in January.

The bill has changed significantly from Negron’s original plan. After several revisions, it’s boiled down from its original language. Now, the bill’s plan begins with the South Florida Water Management District first running modeling to see what state-owned lands can be converted to water storage, and how much more would need to be purchased from a willing buyer for storage and treatment. The bill will cost $800 million to create the reservoir south of Lake O, prioritizing the Everglades Agricultural Area, which is land the state is leasing to agricultural companies.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but the planning process and actual implementation will take a long time,” Andrews said.

According to a statement released by Negron Tuesday, the bill does not authorize the use of eminent domain to acquire land for the restoration project. Instead, the bill says the South Florida Water Management District will start contacting landowners after July 31 of this year to find willing sellers. The bill authorizes alternative means of getting land, such as land swaps.

Within the bill, there is a nod to agriculture workers, establishing an Everglades Restoration Agricultural Community Training Program for training and employment programs for workers to gain skills in non-agricultural employment.

It also expedites the EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area) reservoir project planning study. The EAA is land currently leased out for agriculture, but the lease ends in 2019. Originally, the state estimated the study of the EAA land for a reservoir wouldn’t begin until 2022, but the bill would help that study begin more quickly.

Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane spearheaded an effort last year to get local governments to appeal to the state about the need to accelerate the plan to redirect Lake O water south. The City of Sanibel drafted a resolution which was passed July 19 urging the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate the design and planning process for the Everglades Agricultural Area to provide land south of Lake O for storage and filtration. He sent the letter to the other municipalities of Lee County, and many also adopted the resolution.

“We were extremely pleased to see that SB10 passed both the House and the Senate, and we are hopeful it will be approved in the final budget,” Ruane said in an email.

Water storage south of Lake O was Sanibel’s top legislative priority this year, Ruane said, as accelerating storage, treatment and conveyance of water south of Lake Okeechobee is critical to reducing the damaging high-flow discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. This year’s weather conditions have not caused the same discharges as seen in 2016, but without change, the damage will continue.

“We thank Senate President Joe Negron and Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran for their leadership in passing this important bill,” Ruane said.

U.S. Representative Francis Rooney, who has campaigned on water quality, is not directly involved with SB-10. His focus has been on ensuring Florida gets the federal funding it’s been promised for other CERP and CEPP projects. However, he said the amendments to the bill, and its final form, “align” with the CERP’s goals and projects in place and its funding schedule, also called the Integrated Delivery System.

He’s also glad for the expedited planning study of EAA, something he’s also been pushing for as a part of CEPP.

“I’ve been pushing for planning of construction to be done earlier so we can start construction as soon as the lease is finished,” he said.

SB-10 must still be approved by Gov. Rick Scott. As of early Monday, it had not yet been signed or vetoed.

“SB-10 reflex the complex nature of restoring the Everglades,” Rooney said. “There are many different projects that need to be completed as part of the restoration.”

Andrew said in his post that Captains for Clean Water will continue to work with stakeholders to maintain the momentum the group has gained since establishing only last year, and continue to be involved in the process.

“Without continuing to build support, we will never see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Andrews said. “When sportsmen come together on an issue, we don’t put it to rest until the problem is solved.”