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House Warming To Negron's Shrinking Reservior

Florida House of Representatives

By scaling back the cost and size of a proposed reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, Senate President Joe Negron appears to be making progress with critics. But a deal seems far from certain.

Memories of a guacamole-like ooze smothering South Florida waterways were still fresh last summer when Senate President Joe Negron proposed a solution – a $2.4 billion-dollar, 60,000-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

Condemnation came swiftly from major landowners like U.S. Sugar, and community activists worried about job loss in one of the poorest areas of the state. Debate even spread to North Florida, where former Republican state Senator Greg Evers was running for Congress.

“It’s time for the state to step up, use the resources that’s available to it, and not be purchasing farm land, taking it off the tax rolls, making it a burden on the counties south of the lake.”

Evers lost, but opposition to the project grew. Negron has been fighting to keep a coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans and environmentalists on board ever since. This week, Negron announced he could accomplish the goal with just $1.5 billion, and a smaller, deeper reservoir.

Senate Budget Chief Jack Latvala says the new plan requires water managers to use far fewer private acres, reducing job loss. And Latvala says that should quiet the critics.

“Well I would certainly hope so. When you hear their stated objections, that they’ve made publicly, you know, it’s always had to do with losing jobs or the amount of bonding involved, or whatever, and we’ve pretty much removed those stated objections.”

Now the same critics point out the plan would interfere with a complicated schedule for Everglades restoration hammered out years ago between the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But bill sponsor Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, calls that nit picking. Bradley says the schedule wasn’t written in stone.

“What the Senate is saying is that we now have the financial and the political wherewithal and will to get southern storage done. The schedule should adopt to those realities and that is the new reality.”

The compromise appears to be working. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a chief critic, told reporters he likes a lot of what he sees.

“We’ll go through it. The Senate knows our concerns, what we would like to do. We’ll see. But I think the more the Senate works on it, the happier we are.”

The new plan delays the need to borrow money for a year. But the state eventually would have to issue bonds to pay its $750 million-dollar share of the cost. And that’s a line Corcoran says he’s not willing to cross.

“No, we’re not bonding. Bonding’s an issue….No, no, I didn’t say we’re going to go along with it. I said it’s getting better and better.”

Negron is also putting his foot down. He says there’s no way the state can afford to build such a massive project without borrowing money.

“I think we need to have bonding authority in Senate Bill 10 to accomplish the goal in a short period of time.”

The money would come from a land acquisition trust fund that was central to Amendment 1. Environmentalists sponsored the ballot initiative in 2014 after the Legislature stopped funding land conservation programs like Florida Forever.

Over the years, Florida Forever has rescued millions of wilderness acres from the bulldozer. Negron says using Amendment 1 money for the reservoir is a natural fit. 

“While we are all entitled to our opinions about bonding and how much we should do, the reality is that Amendment 1, passed by 70 percent of the voters, anticipates bonding for large land purchases.”

Negron goes a step further. Amendment 1 was a mandate for projects like the reservoir, Negron says.

“When the voters speak and send us a directive to do bonding for environmental land purchases, I think we’re obligated to honor that constitutional imperative.”

With about a month left in the 60-day session, the project’s future looks brighter, but nobody is scheduling a groundbreaking ceremony yet. Governor Rick Scott did not include money for a reservoir in his budget proposal. And like Corcoran, he also opposes borrowing money for land conservation.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.