Senate President Joe Negron’s $2.4 billion plan to protect South Florida waterways from another toxic-algae sliming received a Luke-warm legislative debut. Behind the scenes, the South Florida Water Management District was launching torpedoes.
This summer, toxic green algae coated beaches and waterways in Southwest and Southeast Florida, including the Treasure Coast district of Senate President Joe Negron. Soon, Negron was calling for buying 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee to store polluted runoff blamed for the outbreak.
But at a Senate hearing this week, a skeptical South Florida Water Management District executive director Pete Antonocci warned storing water is just the first step.
“Every time that you store water, whether it’s south of the lake or north of the lake, you have to take consideration of whether it can be cleaned properly or not, because we’re operating under a series of agreements with federal authorities.”
Antonacci also made oblique references to the unwillingness of big sugar growers to sell productive land. However, Antonnoci acknowledged that water managers could always build the reservoir by speeding up an ongoing, $10 billion Everglades restoration plan with the federal government.
“The integrated delivery schedule is not scripture, it can be amended. And I know the Corps is prepared to do that. It’s always a question of how much money do you have?”
After the meeting, Antonacci said he doesn’t think the state needs to buy more land to accomplish Negron’s goal. A water management district bureau chief was more blunt in a January 9th letter to Everglades Foundation program director Thomas Van Lant.
The bureau chief called an Everglades Foundation study supporting the reservoir, “irresponsible science” and accused Van Lent of deliberately misleading the public. Van Lent stands by his report. He says the letter is a sign of how badly bureaucrats and Big Sugar want to kill the proposal.
“I think they’ve made a determination that they’re not interested in selling their land and therefore they’re curtailing even the conversation whether or not it’s a good idea. And the water management district seems to be taking that same view. They don’t even want to discuss it.”
Governor Rick Scott wants to focus more on encouraging the removal of septic tanks in and around the effected estuaries. Negron’s plan would require bonding a $100 million stream of Amendment 1 tax dollars voters ordered set aside for land conservation in 2014.
But last month, Scott blessed a report by the state Division of Bond Finance that warned against borrowing more money for land conservation. Earlier this week, Scott’s top environmental cop, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson, didn’t exactly give the plan a full-throated endorsement.
“I think he’s going to present that plan to the Senate and to the House and we’re fully committed on Everglades restoration.”
Meanwhile, Speaker Richard Corcoran has ordered all appropriations chairs to conduct a massive budget cutting exercise. The atmosphere was particularly glum at the first meeting of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. Chairman Ben Albritton, a Bartow Republican, warned budget cuts could be steep.
“Target B, in recurring, is $66.8 million, non-recurring would be $28.7, and the total is $95.4, so you can see that those are real numbers.”
Negron’s supporters counter that not acting is more expensive. They site a Florida Association of Realtors’ study that blamed the toxic algae bloom for $1 billion in lost property values alone.