Apparently the fact-finding is over. And why not? Who needs an informed Senate on a controversial $2.4 billion expression of Big Government when the Senate president has spoken?
This morning, one day after Sen. Rob Bradley's Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources heard stakeholders pour their hearts out over the potential good and bad of a 60,000-acre reservoir on private property in the middle of the Everglades Agricultural Area -- a departure from the restoration plans already in place -- Bradley filed Senate Bill 10, Water Resources.
Senate Bill 10 is the No. 1 priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Bradley is merely the water carrier -- and frankly, he's been a very good one, fairly managing the time of the dozens of Floridians who twice trekked to Tallahassee in support of, or opposition to the issue. I hope these folks won't consider the bill a done deal, even though Negron holds a tight rein on his chamber. (See the letter he wrote and distributed to all senators today in the attachment below.) There's a great deal of collateral damage to consider. For example, we haven't yet heard from the Taxpayers Association in Palm Beach County, or anywhere in the Glades, which stand to lose a significant chunk of private property from their tax rolls.
Senate Bill 10 authorizes bonding a portion of proceeds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, set aside by the voter-approved Water and Land Conservation Amendment (Amendment 1, 2014), to purchase land and construct a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee "to reduce harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries."
Here is some of the rationale Negron used at the bill's filing:
“Despite the sincere efforts of our state and federal government to plan and fund long-term solutions to address rising water levels and pollution in Lake Okeechobee, year after year as the Lake levels rise, the solution is to flood my community and many others across our state with billions of gallons of polluted water that destroys our estuaries and harms our local economies.
"Record rainfall this past year resulted in unseasonably high water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which threatened the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. To maintain safe water levels, the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the release of billions of gallons of water from the Lake to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. Such freshwater discharges cause significant environmental damage by lowering the salinity levels of the estuaries and introducing pollutants into coastal waters. Due to the discharges this summer, massive amounts of toxic algae that originated in Lake Okeechobee were sent to the estuaries and coastal waterways.
Added Bradley, “These algal blooms have occurred before and will occur again unless high volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee are stopped and pollution in the Lake Okeechobee basin is abated. Algal blooms are not simply an unsightly nuisance for residents and tourists, they bring real health risks to humans and wildlife and result in severe economic damage to local businesses.”
So far, so good. But then Negron begins to draw conclusions that his bill will bring a "fix" to the problem, even when those conclusions are not shared by the hands-on engineers and scientists working with Everglades restoration.
“For nearly two decades, there has been scientific consensus and recognition by state leaders that additional water storage south of Lake Okeechobee is necessary to stop this ongoing problem; from Governor Jeb Bush's historic support of the bipartisan Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000; to the recent University of Florida Water Institute study commissioned by the Senate and completed in 2015,” Negron continued. “This legislation provides a clear plan to address this plague on our communities in a manner that respects the interests of the agricultural community and private land owners.”
"Additional water storage" -- yes, but 60,000 shallow acres? Did anybody see that in the recent University of Florida Water Institute study? Why not a deep well injected into the reservoir already on site?
Bradley then showed he's heard enough debate, on behalf of his committee and the Florida Senate. “The projects planned and under way are absolutely necessary and must be continued. Unfortunately, current projects fail to include one significant component that the majority of scientists and experts uniformly agree on -- a long-term solution requires additional land and storage south of Lake Okeechobee."
Do they really? Do the "majority of scientists and experts uniformly agree" on the need for more land south of the lake?" They agree more storage is necessary, but more land? How much land on the top of the reservoir already in the Central Everglades Plan?
“This legislation implements the constitution by using Amendment 1 funds, funds Florida voters dedicated to improving our environment, to address a critical and ongoing problem that impacts our residents, visitors, business, economy and quality of life.”
Oh, OK then. As long as we can, let's.
Senate Bill 10 authorizes the issuance of bonds to raise more than $1 billion to acquire 60,000 acres of land and build the southern reservoir. The estimated cost is roughly $2.4 billion -- of which the state's share is half. The federal government -- if you are to believe it -- will match the other half.
But please -- be careful here. Amendment 1 does not secure federal funding and the feds are already woefully behind. Which is why Florida passed legislation last year earmarking money for CERP.
Even Bradley says, "Nearly half way through the original timeline of CERP, less than 20 percent of the estimated total cost has been funded." That's the feds, people. That's the feds failing to meet their 50-50 commitment on years and years of restoration components. That's broken promises. Remember that.
Congressman Bill Schuster, R-Texas, visited the Treasure Coast not long ago. Schuster is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees the Corps and is key to approving any new projects. When he was asked whether the feds were on board with Negron's south reservoir plan, the chairman said, be careful what you ask for, you don’t want the federal government as your partner on this. He said a Chief’s report would be required, something that takes about three years of analysis. Then it would need to go to Congress for approval. Don't take the dodginess of this from me. Ask the Treasure Coast's new congressman, Rep. Brian Mast exactly what Schuster said.
Worth it maybe, this reservoir -- if it meant when the job is done Martin, St. Lucie and Lee counties will never see another lake release. But it doesn't mean that at all. Releases may be lessened, but in very wet years like 2016, they will remain a way of life.
And if the federal government does part with the money, good luck, Florida, getting Uncle Sam to meet his long-failed other 50-50 commitments.
Oh, by the way -- the $2.5 billion doesn't include construction or the dredging and plumbing required after that. That's just to buy the land. Add another $2.5-plus billion for the finished product.
Senate Bill 10, the Boondoggle.