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BY BRIAN BOWDEN Free Press Staff
bbowden@keysnews.com

TALLAHASSEE — 


The Senate’s Appropriations Committee voted 16-2 in favor of the revised bill at its April 5 meeting. The Florida House of Representative’s companion bill has yet to be heard by any committee. State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, previously told the Free Press that the House would take a wait-and-watch approach to see how the legislation fared in the Senate first. The bill has passed three Senate committees with mostly favorable review.

The day before last week’s Senate meeting, in an effort to help it pass the House and ultimately carry Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, the bill was heavily amended. This is the second time it has been changed from the initial $2.4 billion plan.

The bill originally called for the purchase of 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee on mostly private agricultural land. Those acres would contain a reservoir that would act as a filtration system for fresh water discharged from the lake, cleaning it before it flows to the Everglades and Florida Bay, which have lacked a sufficient amount of fresh water during the dry months.

While a reservoir is still part of the plan, the revised bill now calls for a much smaller but deeper one. It would initially be a 14,000-acre reservoir that’s 14 feet deep. The price tag of the project also dropped to $1.5 billion, because it would direct the state to use more sugar fields it already owns and leases.

The proposed reservoir would be located in the southern portion of the Everglades Agriculture Area in Palm Beach County. Funds for the plan would come from a combination of state and federal entities. Under the bill, $750 million would be paid by the state. The feds would be responsible for the other half.

“Revisions to Senate Bill 10 have removed opponents’ objections to this bill, and we believe this legislation is not only positioned for ultimate passage but also for delivering positive impact on the restoration of America’s Everglades,” Everglades Foundation CEO Erik Eikenberg said in an April 5 press release by the non-profit.

Last month, the Senate made sweeping changes that changed the $2.4 billion bill into a $3.3 billion plan 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 additions. Most of those additions are no longer part of the latest draft.

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.

The bill would also require the South Florida Water Management District to move up its schedule for reservoir projects from 2021 to 2018.

Aside from a reservoir, the new bill spells out securities for Glades County residents who say a loss of farmland would mean serious struggles for the people living and working there. The bill calls for job-training programs as well as the construction of an airport in Clewiston, an inland seaport in Palm Beach County and other 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 tourist-driven economy throughout the state.

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. Neither has yet to fully recover. 

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