Opposition to south-of-the-lake water plan heats up

Debate over the best way to get more fresh water into Florida Bay could spill over into the 2017 Florida Legislature’s session starting March 7.
Debate over the best way to get more fresh water into Florida Bay could spill over into the 2017 Florida Legislature’s session starting March 7. Contributed

A push to preserve Florida Bay and the Everglades by acquiring land for water-storage areas south of Lake Okeechobee will not come without opposition.

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed state 2017-18 budget comes with a “frequently asked questions” summary that rejects funding for water-storage areas in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

It reads: “Does the Governor’s budget include money to purchase land for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee? No. The budget includes more than $215 million for several water storage projects around Lake Okeechobee which will provide more than 170 billion gallons of water storage once completed.”

Advocates for Florida Bay and the Everglades contend water storage-and-treatment reservoirs south of the lake are essential to restoring freshwater flows.

On Wednesday, the South Florida Water Management District issued a statement on what the agency calls a “historic plan to protect South Florida's coastal estuaries.”

It focuses on a system of reservoirs and deepwater-injection wells north of Lake Okeechobee to reduce freshwater discharges from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. A graphic with the statement is titled: “North/South Water Storage: A Side-by-Side Comparison.”

Florida Bay and the Everglades are not mentioned in the Water Management District’s release.

Tom Van Lent, chief scientist with the Everglades Foundation, harbors strong doubts about the proposal, which he said was never considered in Everglades restoration planning.

“Basically, they want to take all the fresh water needed by Florida Bay and the Everglades and bury it underground forever,” said Van Lent, a Key Largo resident. “It’s extremely inefficient, expensive and unsustainable.”

“It creates as many problems as it solves, if not more,” Van Lent said. “It’s not a product of a great deal of thought or investigation; it’s more of a distraction. They’re painting alternatives they really haven’t investigated.”

South Florida Wildlands Association Executive Director Matthew Schwartz said, “Of all the hare-brained schemes they’ve come up with, this has got to be right up there near the top.”

State officials “are facing hard choices they don’t want to make,” Schwartz said. “That water is the life blood of the Everglades and Florida Bay and now they’re talking about dumping it underground.”

Florida Senate President Joe Negron said he supports Senate Bill 10, which seeks to buy about 60,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area from willing sellers to protect mainland estuaries from harmful discharges and restore the historic water flow to the Everglades and Florida Bay.

“Everyone agrees something needs to be done,” Negron said in a Wednesday interview with TCPalm.com. Negron cited “a concensus” that “we need lands south of the lake. Now we’re arguing about which lands and when we need to do it.”

Money would come from the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative (Amendment 1) approved by nearly 75 percent of Florida voters in 2014.

Florida sugar growers, some Central Florida communities and many state legislators oppose buying land for water storage in the EAA.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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