Legislation Would Reduce Harmful Discharges from
Lake Okeechobee, Increase Southern Water Storage
The Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation today passed Senate Bill 10, Water Resources, by Senator Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island). The legislation, a priority of Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart) authorizes bonding a portion of proceeds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, set aside by the voter-approved Water and Land Conservation Amendment (Amendment 1, 2014), to purchase land and construct a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
“I am pleased to see this legislation earn the support of my Senate colleagues today,” said Senator Bradley. “I appreciate the input provided by many stakeholders during today’s committee meeting, and I look forward to continuing that important dialogue as the bill moves through the legislative process.”
“This legislation provides a solution to the plague of harmful, polluted discharges and toxic blue-green algae that respects both the interests of the agricultural community and the rights of private land owners,” said President Negron. “After twenty years of talking about southern storage, the time to act is now. This legislation will make an important difference in the quality of life for people in my community and many others across our state. I am very grateful to my fellow Senators for their support.”
Senate Bill 10 authorizes the issuance of bonds to raise over a billion dollars to acquire 60,000 acres of land and build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. The reservoir is expected to hold 120 billion gallons of water, approximately as much water as was discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary between January and May of 2016. The creation of significant storage capacity south of the Lake will help manage Lake levels in anticipation of periods of high rainfall like this year’s predicted El Nino weather pattern. 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.
The estimated cost of a reservoir on 60,000 acres of land, providing 120 billion gallons of storage in the area south of Lake Okeechobee, is roughly $2.4 billion. With the federal government paying at least half of the cost of such a reservoir, the state’s commitment would be $1.2 billion. The bill authorizes the use of approximately $100 million of documentary stamp tax revenue set aside by the Water and Land Conversation Amendment (Amendment 1, 2014) annually over the next 20 years to finance land acquisition and construction of the reservoir.
The bill directs the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to begin the formal process of purchasing land from willing sellers. The project is subject to Congressional approval to secure the 50/50 cost sharing agreement authorized for other Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects.
If the SFWMD is unable to identify sellers of land appropriate for a reservoir through an open solicitation by the end of CY 2017, the legislation authorizes the Board of Trustees to exercise the option with U.S. Sugar entered into in 2010 to buy 153,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area, for the purpose of securing the 60,000 acres necessary for the reservoir and to begin the planning the construction of the reservoir.
If the state is ultimately unable to purchase land for the reservoir by November 30, 2018, the legislation increases the ongoing Legacy Florida appropriation by an additional $50 million for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which includes a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area as a key component. This is in addition to Legacy Florida’s existing commitment of $200 million. Legacy Florida also requires preference among these projects to be given to projects that reduce the harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee Estuaries.
Record rainfall this past year resulted in unseasonably high water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which threatened the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. To maintain safe water levels, the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the release of billions of gallons of water from the Lake to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. Such freshwater discharges cause significant environmental damage by lowering the salinity levels of the estuaries and introducing pollutants into coastal waters. Due to the discharges this summer, massive amounts of toxic algae that originated in Lake Okeechobee were sent to the estuaries and coastal waterways.
As a result of the high volume discharges, coastal communities experienced enormous harmful algal blooms with devastating impacts not only to the ecology of local waterways, but also to residents, fishermen, and local businesses. The extent and severity of the blooms resulted in Governor Scott declaring a state of emergency in four Florida counties.