WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The struggle over control of Lake Okeechobee water took center stage on the floor of the State Senate in Tallahassee on Thursday.
Senators approved Senate Bill 2508, a controversial measure, that still has some clean water advocates worried.
The vote wasn't even close, 37 to 2, in favor of passing the legislation.
Opponents said the bill was first written to upend the Lake Okeechobee water management plan.
The bill had a last-minute amendment that seemed to appease many opponents, including charter fishermen who traveled to the Capitol.
Originally the bill had seemingly upended the new water management plan for Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers and drew concerns about increased water discharges down the St. Lucie River.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, said before Thursday's vote that the bill was being "misunderstood" and he assured there would be funding for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir project, designed to control water levels in the lake.
"The major concern in my area, certainly, is the EAA Reservoir and stopping the releases from Lake Okeechobee," said State Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart.
Harrell voted yes after receiving assurances from the bill's sponsor that the EAA Reservoir project won't be affected and algae would not be released into the St. Lucie River.
"Is in any way this going to result in more harmful discharges to the St Lucie River?" Harrell asked Albritton.
"I don't believe so, no," Albritton replied.
Eve Samples, the executive director of Friends of the Everglades, said her organization is concerned about a provision that would give public utilities the authority to expedite wetland dredge and fill projects and write 2007 rules on low water management into state law.
"These water shortage rules, that really protect big sugar and other agricultural water users, would be protected in state law itself, and that can harm the environment," Samples said.
The bill, which was introduced last week, came as surprise to many, including Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Among the two no votes were Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale.
"I'm still trying to digest it all," Farmer said. "It is so complicated."
"While the worst parts of this bill were removed with the amendment filed on Wednesday, many concerning components still remain," Samples said. "We just have to wonder what's motivating this, and who's behind it."
The governor's office, in a brief statement, said it is still mulling over the bill.
The legislation now moves on to the House and would need a signature from the governor before it could become law.
Supporters of SB 2508 include the city of West Palm Beach, which has concerns about its drinking water supply and the sugar industry.
In a statement, Florida Crystals said they support the Senate's actions:
"We support the Florida Senate’s action today that reaffirmed its commitment to ensure important projects like the EAA Reservoir are built. Florida Crystals is proud of our positive collaboration with the South Florida Water Management District over the last five years that has ensured a timely transition of land from food production to water storage, and we remain committed to facilitating the EAA Reservoir’s expedited construction schedule."
The Everglades Foundation released the following statement regarding Senate Bill 2508:
"The Everglades Foundation thanks the Florida Senate for hearing the concerns from people all across Florida, in addition to the ones who have traveled to Tallahassee multiple times over the last couple weeks.
The amendment to Senate Bill 2508 removes language to which The Everglades Foundation and countless Floridians voiced strong opposition.
The construction of the EAA Reservoir, south of Lake Okeechobee, remains a priority of the state of Florida. The balanced Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual remains balanced and on track to provide water benefits to all users, including substantial water flowing south to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
A few issues remain but having heard the assurances from senators on the Senate floor today, we believe those issues will be addressed and resolved during the budget conference process.
We also want to thank Governor Ron DeSantis for his unwavering support for the Everglades and being a strong champion on these issues."