Keys gave reservoir bill big boost, lawmakers say

Florida Bay waters should benefit from a new upstate reservoir system successfully advocated by Florida Keys residents, legislators say.
Florida Bay waters should benefit from a new upstate reservoir system successfully advocated by Florida Keys residents, legislators say. Keynoter

Support from the Florida Keys “made a very, very big impact” in persuading Florida lawmakers to approve a massive water-storage area south of Lake Okeechobee, state Sen. Anitere Flores said Wednesday.

Midway through the spring legislative session, Senate Bill 10 that commits $50 million in state money toward the reservoir “had a 0.0 percent chance of passage,” Flores (R-Miami and the Keys) told Monroe County commissioners at a Wednesday legislative update in Key Largo.

The “south of the lake” reservoir has been advocated by environmentalists to hold and treat fresh water that can be sent through the Everglades system and into Florida Bay, which experts say has suffered from a lack of historical freshwater flow.

The reservoir also should help prevent huge discharges of fresh water from an overfull Lake Okeechobee into brackish coastal estuaries on both east and west Florida coastlines. The discharges have caused fill kills and sparked damaging algae blooms that can be seen from space.

Florida Keys elected officials, charter captains, anglers and conservationists actively joined the push for the reservoir, which was opposed by Florida’s sugar industry. Declarations and lobbying helped turn the tide, said Flores, who was Senate vice president this past legislative session.

“Monroe County played a substantially huge and pivotal role in making sure SB 10 passed,” Flores said.

County Mayor George Neugent told state Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) and Flores, “Everglades restoration is extremely important to Monroe County and you guys did great work on that.”

Raschein (R-Key Largo) said $13.3 million approved under the Florida Keys Stewardship Act for various water-related projects is significant because the legislators were not doling out much in local funding during this year’s session.

“It was tumultuous, exciting and very busy but we came out relatively unscathed,” Raschein told commissioners.

Commissioners urged the two legislators to educate their state colleagues on the looming end of building permits for undeveloped Florida Keys land as imposed under the state-mandated Area of Critical State Concern.

Building permits based on hurricane-evacution times have been tightly rationed and could be exhausted by 2023, just five years away. That could put the county and state in a precarious legal situation over “takings” if land owners cannot make use of their property. “2023 is like tomorrow,” said Commissioner Danny Kolhage.

“We hear the state doesn’t want to buy any more land for conservation but our situation is totally different from conservation lands,” Neugent said. “We’ve talked to [legislators] and they don’t know that. This is protection for the state as well as the county.”

Many legislators don’t know what an Area of Critical State Concern is, Raschein said. “We need to spread the word about how our situation is completely unique.” Under the Area of Critical State Concern designation, development is severely restricted and many land-use rules are overseen by state agencies.

This year, the legislature did not approve any funding for the Florida Forever program, which was active in buying private owned land in the Keys and elsewhere. “Very disappointing,’ Raschein said.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206