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Florida's next Senate president plans to deliver 2.4 billion reasons for the politically powerful sugar industry to part with South Florida farmland needed to build a Lake Okeechobee reservoir.

Getting $2.4 billion approved to build the reservoir can overcome growing opposition from the sugar industry and farming communities rimming the lake, state Sen. Joe Negronsaid.

"It's a completely different discussion when money is available," said Negron, who also said informal discussions about acquiring land are already happening. "The next step is to build support in the Legislature for the proposal."

Negron bills the reservoir as a necessary, alternative outlet for polluted lake water now being drained out to sea — which fuels toxic algae blooms, killing marine life and scaring away tourists in the coastal communities Negron represents.

Yet sugar industry leaders have so far balked at sacrificing 60,000 acres of farmland south of the lake for a new reservoir.

They say taking that land out of farming will cost agricultural jobs without delivering enough water storage room to significantly help Lake Okeechobee drainage problems.

"Taking our land is not going to solve his problem," Gaston Cantens, vice president for sugar producer Florida Crystals, said about Negron's proposal. "There is no silver bullet."

The Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida — a collection of smaller sugar cane growers — has warned that losing 60,000 acres of sugar cane farming production means one of South Florida's four remaining sugar mills could close.

Keith Wedgworth farms sugar cane land in one of the areas Negron has targeted for building the reservoir. Wedgworth's family has been farming in South Florida for 80 years.


"It was something that we didn't see coming. We were never asked about it," Wedgworth said about Negron's proposal. "I don't want to lose (the farm) on my watch."

Dealing with foul-smelling ooze

Negron's proposed reservoir is part of a costly, ongoing effort to correct the environmentally damaging consequences of South Florida's flood control system.

Lake Okeechobee's waters – which once naturally flowed south to replenish the Everglades – get held behind a 30-foot-tall mound of rock, sand and shell relied on to protect South Florida's cities and farms from flooding.

During wetter-than-usual years like this year, the Army Corps of Engineers drains billions of gallons of water lake each day to the east and west coasts.

That influx of pollution-laden lake water into normally salty estuaries threatens fishing grounds near Stuart and Fort Myers and can fuel toxic algae blooms, like the bright-green, foul-smelling ooze on the east coast this summer that got national attention.

Negron proposes to move much of that lake water south to a 120 billion-gallon reservoir and then filter out pollutants so that the water could be used to replenish the Everglades.

His proposal estimates that it would cost $2.4 billion buy the land and build the reservoir. He is calling for the state and federal governments to split the cost, just as the state and feds are partnering on other ongoing Everglades restoration projects.

Under Negron's plan, the state would borrow the money for its share and pay off the debt with money approved by voters in 2014 for environmental efforts. The Amendment 1 state constitutional amendment designates using a portion of Florida's existing real estate taxes to buy land for water conservation and to pay for other environmental uses.

Environmental groups have long pushed for using farmland to get more Lake Okeechobee water moving south.

Eric Eikenberg, Everglades Foundation CEO, said the next step is lobbying the Legislature this spring to back Negron's plan to use Amendment 1 money to pay for the state's share of a new reservoir.

"We have got the money," Eikenberg said. "We just need the will."

Differing water-storage proposals

Buying more land for a reservoir may conflict with Gov. Rick Scott's plans for Everglades restoration, which calls for using land the state already owns to finish building other previously proposed reservoirs and water treatment areas.

"Governor Scott will review his proposal and all options that will help with water quality in our state," Lauren Schenone, the governor's press secretary, said about Negron's plan. "We look forward to working with the Legislature as session approaches."

Sugar industry representatives say the state should focus on building places to store and clean up water north of Lake Okeechobee, before the water fills the lake and gets drained toward coastal communities.

Andres Fanjul, whose family runs Florida Crystals, said Negron's reservoir proposal takes the approach of, "I'm having a problem in my backyard, send it to theirs."

"That's the wrong solution," Fanjul said.

U.S. Sugar Corp., the state's other big sugar producer, is looking to buy land for more farming, not sell land for a reservoir, said U.S. Sugar Senior Vice President Malcolm "Bubba" Wade, Jr.

U.S. Sugar in 2010 reached a $197 million deal to sell the state 26,800 acres for Everglades restoration. The deal also included a 10-year option for the state to buy the company's remaining 153,000 acres.

U.S. Sugar now prefers not to sell, Wade said.

"A reservoir (south of the lake) does you no good," Wade said. "We need to do these things that we know are going to help."

Sugar industry representatives argue that a reservoir like the one Negron proposes won't help much during a rainy year like this one, when water levels rise in the Everglades as well as Lake Okeechobee.

There are limits to how much water can flow into the Everglades, because of the risk of South Florida flooding, water-quality regulations and physical barriers to moving more water south.

As a result, critics of Negron's proposal say once the reservoir fills up, the lake draining to the east and west would likely resume.

"You can fill that reservoir up one time and you can't send (the water) south," said Rich Budell, of the Florida Agribusiness Council. "You are never going to eliminate discharges to the estuaries."

Adding a reservoir in the farming region south of Lake Okeechobee has always been envisioned for long-range Everglades restoration plans, said Eikenberg, of the Everglades Foundation.

It's intended to be one of the ways — not the lone solution — to get more lake water moving south, instead of discharged east and west, he said. Blaming the reservoir for not completely solving the problems is "the knuckle dragger's argument to not tackle the issue," Eikenberg said.

Negron said the reservoir should be pursued, along with plans for storing and cleaning up more water north of Lake Okeechobee.

As Senate president, he will have big say in crafting the state budget and determining what legislation gets through the Senate when the legislative session begins in March.

Negron, a Republican first elected to the Legislature in 2000, said he is open to building the South Florida reservoir outside of the two areas he proposed.

"All of us have an obligation to address this issue and to help provide a solution," Negron said. "Finding 60,000 acres of land south of the lake is not going to disrupt commerce. It's not going to have an adverse effect on agriculture."

abreid@sunsentinel.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews

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