TALLAHASSEE — Whether or not a contested billion-dollar water storage plan would be heard by the state House of Representatives before the end of the legislative session was still up in the air as of Monday. The session concludes May 5.
Last week, the Florida Senate passed its version of the bill with overwhelming majority, 36-3. It calls for the expeditious building of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to prevent harmful discharges into two rivers while providing clean water to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
In anticipation of a possible House hearing on the bill Wednesday, two major proponents of the plan, Everglades Foundation and Bullsugar.org, were trying to rally supporters in the Florida Keys to travel to Tallahassee to speak before the committee.
According to state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, House staff was working on its version of the bill as of Friday, but at that time she said no hearing had been scheduled. The original version of the bill was referred to the Natural Resources and Public Lands Subcommittee, which Raschein chairs, in late February — a week before the legislative session began. It has sat there dormant since that time. A bill must be heard by at least one committee before heading to the House floor for a vote, Raschein said.
The Senate-approved version of the bill spells out the building of a sizable southern reservoir on 14,000 acres of land currently leased by the state to Florida Crystals. It would be 14 feet deep and able to hold 240,000 acre- feet of water, or roughly 100 billion gallons, from Lake Okeechobee. The bill also includes the possible use of an adjacent stormwater treatment reservoir that could increase the size to 360,000 acre-feet if needed.
Last month, the Senate made sweeping changes to the original $2.4 billion plan that morphed it into a $3.3 billion undertaking that included $35 million for water projects along the St. John’s River, $20 million for septic tank conversions to sewer systems near Lake Okeechobee and $2 million for water projects in the Florida Keys, among other items. The additions were made in the hopes that it would be better received by the House. However, most of those additions are no longer part of the latest version of the bill.
The original plan also called for the issuing of bonds to pay for the reservoir. As it’s now written, no bonds would be issued in the first year. However, they would likely be used in subsequent years. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has publicly stated his opposition to taking on any debt for water resources projects. Raschein confirmed that this would be a problem, although she personally has no issues with bonding it.
The bill also requires the South Florida Water Management District to move up its schedule for reservoir projects from 2021 to 2018. The reservoir was part of the original joint federal-state Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan authorized by Congress.
Aside from a reservoir, the new bill spells out securities for Glades County residents who say any loss of farmland would mean serious struggles for the people living and working there. The bill calls for job-training programs as well as local infrastructure projects.
The water bill continues to remain a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, because of feared further threats to the state’s tourist-driven economy.
Last summer, Scott declared a state of emergency after toxic algae overtook the St. Lucie waterway along the Treasure Coast due to harmful water discharges from the lake. And in summer 2015, the freshwater-starved Florida Bay suffered a massive seagrass die-off during a period of drought that wiped out a documented 22,000 acres in its northeastern portion.
State Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, one of two sponsors of the House bill, was not able to provide information on the status of the bill or whether it would be heard by a committee by press time Monday.