Senate leader proposes buying land south of Lake O


BY BRIAN BOWDEN
Free Press Staff



The Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee is home to sugar cane farms and other forms of agriculture.
MIKE HENTZ/Free Press



SOUTH FLORIDA — In an effort to prevent future toxic algae from destroying coastal communities, incoming state Senate President Joe Negron earlier this month proposed buying 60,000 acres of sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee.

It would serve as a reservoir for discharged, polluted water that otherwise would be flushed from the lake into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

The proposal by the Republican leader from Stuart would be a major plus for the South Florida environment, if implemented, as the stored water could be filtered through marshlands, pushed south and dispersed throughout the greater Everglades and Florida Bay. The bay is still recovering from a massive sea grass die-off in 2015 that destroyed over 25,000 acres of bay bottom due to low freshwater flows and drought-like conditions, which caused high salinity levels that killed the underwater grass meadows.

"We need this [proposal]. This is the solution,” Everglades Foundation biologist Stephen Davis said of Negron’s proposal. “We have a chance to take a giant leap here.”

Negron’s $2.4 billion reservoir proposal could reduce lake water discharges by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers out to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, which has fueled toxic algae blooms that have proven costly to the marine environment as well as the local economies there. The water is dumped into the estuaries when lake levels grow too high, threatening the aging dike around the lake that protects nearby communities and farms from flooding.

The proposal could also help restore natural flows of fresh water into the Everglades, where scientists and environmentalists say it is needed most.

“We must buy land south,” Negron said during his press conference on the proposal. “That’s what I believe is the next step forward.”

Everglades Foundation Chief Executive Officer Eric Eikenberg and Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper released a joint statement in support of Negron’s proposal.

“This project is vital to reconnecting Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys,” they wrote. “By storing, cleaning and sending Lake Okeechobee water south the project significantly reduces the amount of polluted water being dumped east and west.”

The dumping has caused massive fish kills in those coastal areas and scared away tourist dollars for what would typically be a busy summer time for those coastal communities. Davis, with others from the Everglades Foundation, visited several of the affected areas at the mouth of the St. Lucie River in late July and described the smell there as “death.”

“It was unreal,” Davis said. “I have never seen anything quite like it.”

Environmentalists, and more recently Monroe County leaders and anglers, have been urging the state to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee, in the Everglades Agricultural Area, for water storage and cleaning. It is a critical piece of the original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Aside from Negron’s proposal, the state has one final option on the table to buy 153,000 acres of U.S. Sugar owned land in the EAA by2020. However, Gov. Rick Scott and the governor-appointed South Florida Water Management District have previously scaled down or passed on previous options for land purchases in the EAA.

“We need to move sooner rather than later,” Davis said while pointing out that by 2020 it may be too late.

The upcoming state legislative session, where Negron’s proposal would likely be discussed, is set to convene March 7in Tallahassee. Calls to Negron’s office for comment about specific plans for his proposal were denied due to time constraints.


bbowden@keysnews.com