Florida Senate's Lake Okeechobee plan tops $220 million

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A $220 million package to reduce pollutants out of Lake Okeechobee, while also offering general support for the eventual redirection of water to flow south through the Everglades, was backed by a Senate select committee on Tuesday.

The Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin added $30 million worth of projects on Tuesday to its initial short- and long-term recommendations released last week. The committee was created because of the impact of polluted water being released from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers on the east and west coasts of the state.

The additions Tuesday increased the price tag of the C-43 reservoir project along the Caloosahatchee River basin from $5 million to $15 million, and designated $20 million for "scientifically-based" environmental muck removal in central and northern regions of the Indian River Lagoon in the Treasure and Space coasts.

"This is very, very important, but I want us to be cognizant that expenditures are going on solid science," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

The total for the next budget year from the plan is $160 million.

"We're stewards of the taxpayers' money, but equally as important we are stewards of our resources of this great state," said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.

The fiscal package and other recommendations must still get support from the Legislature during the 2014 session as well as from Gov. Rick Scott, who has a couple of items among the recommendations, including $90 million that would be spread over three years to bridge a 2.6-mile section of the Tamiami Trail west of Miami.

Other provisions include; $40 million to speed construction of the state's portion of a C-44 reservoir and stormwater treatment area for the Indian River Lagoon-South Restoration Project; $32 million for projects tied to ensuring that all surface water discharges into the Everglades Protection Area meet water quality standards; and a request for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to give the Department of Environmental Protection authority to regulate releases when the risk of dike failure is less than 10 percent.

Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has long criticized the Army Corps management of the dike system around Lake Okeechobee, particularly the releases.

The Army Corps tries to maintain the water level of the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet to lessen stress on the Herbert Hoover Dike. The Army Corps, which has declined to comment on the recommendations, estimates that when the lake is slightly above 18.5 feet, the risk of failure is considered at 45 percent.

The report notes that when the water level is low, the Army Corps generally defers on water release decisions to the South Florida Water Management District.

Negron, who also chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees the budget, said each funding request will require an offset in the budget.

"I would expect that in order to fund these new initiatives, including lots of other initiatives that legislators will have, that we'll have to go into the base of the budget and make reductions," said Negron, who called the package his top priority for the 2014 session.

Where those cuts come from, Negron said, has yet to be determined.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, complimented Negron for being able to quickly cobble together the fiscal package.

Janet Bowman of The Nature Conservancy supported the recommendations for expanding storage of water north of the lake and addressing the use of agricultural and public lands in the northern Everglades area for storage.

"In all my years in working, lobbying and working for the Legislature this is one of the most thoughtful processes I've seen," Bowman added.

The report recommends increasing the funding for the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs that link the lake with the estuaries; cleaning water that comes into the lake from the Kissimmee River; evaluating means to reduce nutrients from septic tanks; and raising the allowed water levels in canals by a few inches.

Among the additions on Tuesday was a general call to support projects that would eventually shift releases of water to the south through the Everglades.

The proposal to move water through the Everglades, estimated at more than $1 billion and requiring a massive federal partnership, has been rejected three times, in 1994, 1999 and 2009. In 2009, the South Florida Water Management District concluded the proposal was not the most cost-effective or viable way to increase flows south due to the changing landscape of South Florida that would require an extensive network of pumps to recreate the historic sheet flow.

"The report makes clear we support moving water going south, support any plan, project or technology that will move water south," Negron said.

In September, the committee approved $2.77 million to improve pump stations, reducing the flow of polluted waters that have negatively affected the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The money will also go to a build a channel to aid the flow of water from the Florida Everglades across the barrier of the Tamiami Trail in Miami-Dade County.