One of the most controversial spending programs of this year’s session passed its second committee stop Wednesday. The reservoir project championed by Senate President Joe Negron raises conflicting concerns with supporters and opponents.
An hour before lawmakers arrived for the Senate’s environmental spending panel, the hallway outside the third floor committee room was stifling—packed full with men and women in fluorescent yellow shirts voicing support for Senate President Joe Negron’s reservoir. When staffers opened the door they let people in one at a time to keep the room at occupancy. The issue drawing all these people to the capitol was the subject of an emergency declaration last year: toxic algae blooms.
“Normally when the governor issues a state of emergency, some act of god has occurred,” Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) says. “We did this to ourselves.”
“The guacamole water was released from Lake Okeechobee by human decisions and then dumped on our neighbors,” Bradley goes on, “and [it] made them sick and it made their lives miserable.
Bradley is well known in the chamber for shepherding complex and controversial measures, and this year he’s taking the reins for a massive water storage plan.
“This has been quite a journey so far,” he says of the task, “we’re only in day two of session, and I feel like many of us have gotten to get to know each other pretty well.”
But since the measure got started, there have been significant changes.
In a forty-plus page amendment, Bradley tacked on water projects throughout the state to build additional support. The new bill dedicates funding to the Keys and to the St. Johns River in Bradley’s back yard. It also incorporates parts of a septic tank-to-sewer program backed by Governor Rick Scott.
Many of the public speakers voice support for the plan. Amber Marena focuses on the environmental situation in the area and its impact on local economies.
“In the summer of 2016 I moved from my hometown of Delray Beach to Stuart, Florida, and for the first time I saw the flood gates of hell opened up,” Marena says. “I watched my friends and family become sick, I saw the beautiful marine life suffer and die. Boat captains, eco-tour guides, fishermen and many of my friends lost their job and our local economy plummeted.”
Those speaking against the proposal, point to the economy as well, but more often they focus on the precarious employment situation in the area. Pahokee City Manager Chandler Williamson argues taking agricultural land out of production would hurt his community.
“The city of Pahokee within itself has about 19 percent unemployment,” Williamson says. “As vibrant as the Glades is for sugarcane sweet corn—and we are the epicenter for agricultural production—this bill would not only significantly impact us directly, economically it would pretty much sink the Glades.”
It’s an issue highlighted by Minority Leader Oscar Braynon—the only lawmaker to vote against the proposal. And speaking from the floor later in the day, Senate President Negron opened the door to addressing economic concerns in the region.
“My expectation is that in the next part of session, that we’ll be able to come forward with a comprehensive proposal that addresses economic concerns in the glades community on several levels,” Negron says.