On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I had the opportunity to meet in Washington with Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Bill Nelson, members of Congress, senior budget staff, and high-level representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the best way to reduce and ultimately eliminate the devastating discharges from Lake Okeechobee. After completing these meetings and reviewing related documents, here are five things I know:
1. If Florida advances funds to complete the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, the federal government will not repay the money to Florida. We will have simply spent hundreds of millions of dollars of General Revenue funds on what is unquestionably a federal responsibility.
2. As I have consistently advocated from day one, Florida's best scientists should determine the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS) and not the Army Corps of Engineers. Achieving this goal would take an act of Congress, a highly unlikely outcome.
3. Once the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation is complete in 2024, the Army Corps of Engineers is not committed to storing one more gallon of water in Lake Okeechobee. The LORS must go through a multi-year review process, with the Corps predicting only negligible modifications to the release schedule. The Corps wants to avoid expected negative impacts it believes would result if the lake is managed at higher levels than the present.
4. Under both the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), redirecting damaging Lake Okeechobee discharges southward to improve the flow, timing, and distribution of water through the Everglades has already been authorized. The issue is not if we will have additional southern storage, it is when and where.
5. If the Florida Legislature approves and funds additional water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, the Army Corps of Engineers will reevaluate the order of priority in the 2016 Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS). Florida is a partner in Everglades restoration and its decisions influence and impact federal participation in the 50-50 matching program. An example of this reality is the Corps' recent initiation of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed one year earlier than planned after adverse discharge events.
Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made one of his top two priorities Senate Bill 10, legislation to bond for $1.2 billion to buy 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area. If the bill passes, the federal government would partner with the state for another $1.2 billion. The above oped was written earlier Thursday to be distributed to all members of the Florida Senate.