TALLAHASSEE — As Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association Commodore Steve Friedman drove back from the state capital last week, he learned that a controversial water storage bill that calls for the expeditious building of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee had made a major advancement. After weeks of back-and-forth, the plan had passed the Florida Senate with overwhelming approval.
Cheers erupted from Friedman and others in the vehicle for a few brief seconds. Then it was back to reality and the fact that the legislation still has to pass its biggest hurdle yet — the fiscally conservative Florida House of Representatives.
Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has made it clear he won’t support a bill that requires taking on debt. While this $1.5 billion plan, which required the state to split the cost with the federal government, doesn’t call for bonding in its first year, it does in subsequent ones.
Friedman, along with a handful of other local guides and many more from around the state, made the trip to Tallahassee on April 11 as part of Now or Neverglades Sportfishing Day. The goal was to sit down with legislators to further discuss freshwater deprived Florida Bay and the toxic freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechboee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The proposed southern reservoir is being touted as a solution to both problems.
“We accomplished what we set out to do,” Friedman said. “We brought more attention to this issue.”
Among some of the state legislators the Keys group got to sit down with were Corcoran, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, and an aide for Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.
“Corcoran alone was huge,” Friedman said.
“Real people going into their offices, calling them, writing letters, it all works,” Friedman added.
Also on that list was state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo. Raschein initially sidestepped whether or not she would support a bill that calls for pursuing a southern reservoir sooner than originally planned under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan’s delivery schedule. But now that the Senate has approved a final draft of the bill, she told the Free Press she wouldn’t feel comfortable coming home without an expedited Everglades restoration plan in place.
Many are anticipating that the House will discuss the water storage plan in the coming weeks. The legislative session ends May 5. Raschein couldn’t confirm when, or if, the bill might be discussed publicly, but she said House staff is working behind the scenes on it now.
Friedman said he left Raschein’s office last week satisfied but felt she’s not trying to throw too many elbows to get the water storage bill passed in the House in order to not jeopardize potential funding for her Florida Keys Stewardship Act, which proposes up to $25 million a year in funding for water quality, canal restoration and land acquisition in the Keys.
The House budget currently does not contain funding for the act, though the Senate and Gov. Rick Scott have earmarked money for it. The House could reverse itself during budget conferencing with the Senate and fund the act.
Tavernier-based Audubon scientist and longtime fishing guide Pete Frezza was part of that group in Tallahassee with Friedman.
“I was a bit skeptical going in,” Frezza said. “But I think we made our voices heard.”
“This is an issue that’s important with both jobs I do,” Frezza added.
He said water quality in the Everglades and Florida Bay affects wildlife in South Florida such as the roseate spoonbill that the local Audubon focuses a lot of its effort on as well as the fishing conditions that help sustain his guiding business.
“They keep saying there’s no silver bullet,” Frezza said. “But it could be this water storage.”
The Senate-approved plan calls for a 14,000-acre reservoir that is 14 feet deep and able to hold around 100 billion gallons of water from the lake. It would be located on state-owned land in the southern portion of the Everglades Agriculture Area in Palm Beach County.
The plan also calls for acquiring another 3,700 acres of private or state-owned leased land and, if needed, retrofitting an existing stormwater treatment reservoir to hold more water.