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Legislature Sends Lake-O Bill To Governor, Minus Scott's $200M For Dike Repairs

Lake Okeechobee and South Florida viewed from space.
public domain

The Florida House has signed off on Senate President Joe Negron’s top priority: a water reservoir South of Lake Okeechobee. After a quick stop and approval by the Senate, the measure is heading to Governor Rick Scott’s desk.

At one point, the price tag on the proposal was $2 billion, then it ballooned to $3 billion as more water projects poured into it. It’s current price tag? 1.2 billion-- a compromise, says Representative Thad Altman, that’s aimed at protecting communities South of Lake Okeechobee from polluted runoff that has shut down beaches, made people sick, and wreaked economic havoc.

“We’re doing good work here in the Florida legislature to preserve and protect the major ecological engine of South Florida. From an economic to an environmental to a water quality source for six million people, " Altman said.

The proposal is part of a larger compromise on key priorities that are making a deal on a statewide budget possible. Despite its passage, issues still linger. Such as the fact that Negron’s main priority has never been vetted by House members.

"I move to refer SB 10 which wasn’t heard by any House committee, to the House Committee on Agriculture and Property Rights and the House Subcommittee on appropriations," Berman motioned on the chamber floor. That request was shot down.

Negron’s bill still aims to build a water storage reservoir South of Lake Okeechobee by using mostly state land. Agricultural workers who lose their jobs would be given preferential hiring to build the reservoir—a response to concerns it will take jobs away from nearby struggling communities. The deal between the chambers allows bonding up to $800 million to finance construction something House leaders initially refused to do.

“The amendment decreases the authorizing bonding amount from $1.2 billion to $800 million; it decreases the annual appropriation from the LATD from $100 million to $64 million…and requires any remaining funds to become available to the C-51 project or other identified everglades projects," Roshein explained.

The LATF is the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and the funding reductions clear up more money to be used on other projects, as well as for financing to come from other sources. The C-51 is a storage system meant to be used by local municipalities in the area.

Not all lawmakers believe the plan is the best way to address water concerns in Central Florida. Democratic Representative Katie Edwards says too often lawmakers have started projects never to finish them.

“Our responsibility is to fund it, and not substitute our judgment for the professionals, scientists, engineers and hydrologists who vet these projects.”

House members approved the measure 99-18, clearing the way for water projects around Lake Okeechobee to move forward. In a statement the Florida Sugarcane Farmers praised the bill for not taking sugar land out of production and choosing to focus on state property instead. Association spokesman Ryan Duffy says it’s now time for the legislature to focus on reducing pollution originating North of the Lake and Democrats like Edwards, and Representative David Richardson say they’d like to see Northern storage considered in future sessions.

“We need to have a comprehensive plan, we need to figure out how to make sure the water is less nutrient rich before it comes to the lake," Richardson said.

The measure does not include Governor Rick Scott's request for $200 million to fund repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds Lake Okeechobee.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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