Opinion: Scott gives welcome boost to reservoir plan south of Lake Okeechobee

Florida Gov. Rick Scott takes questions during a news conference on environmental issues at the state capitol Monday in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Joe Reedy)

Gov. Rick Scott has given a big boost to Senate President Joe Negron’s plan for a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

The governor on Monday endorsed the Treasure Coast Republican’s revised proposal for a reservoir that would use state-owned land at first, rather than seek to take existing farmland. The aim is to reduce water discharges east and west of the lake — overflows that led last year to toxic, stinky algae blooms — as well as help restore the south-bound water flow of the Everglades.

Scott put his own stamp on the proposal. He wants the Legislature to add $200 million to the budget to help the federal government speed up its repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers currently expects to complete a $1.7 billion project to shore up the wall around Lake Okeechobee by 2025. Scott hopes to cut that date to 2022.

The Senate voted last week 36-3 to approve the water bill (SB 10). That sent it to the House, where its fate is uncertain.

The senator who has navigated the bill through the upper chamber, Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said Scott’s backing was “a huge step forward in bringing this in for a landing.”

Negron had originally sought 60,000 acres to build storage for 120 billion gallons of water south of the lake. But facing stiff opposition from sugar growers and residents of Glades communities concerned about the loss of agricultural jobs, Negron scaled back the project to about 30,000 acres, using land already owned by the state. That dropped the projected price to $1.5 billion from $2.4 billion, to be shared by the state and federal government. The Senate bill seeks $64 million for the reservoir, but the House opposes the Senate’s idea of issuing bonds in future years to help pay for the work.

The federal government hasn’t committed to its 50 percent match.

Scott said in prepared remarks:

I support storage south of the lake in the A2 Reservoir which utilizes state-owned land and does not take people’s private land. This is a big step toward protecting our pristine environment. This additional storage, in conjunction with our currently planned projects around the lake, will help reduce harmful discharges in South Florida.

The A2 is a remnant of past efforts to build a pair of south-of-lake reservoirs in the southwest corner of Palm Beach County. Taxpayers spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the early 2000s on the first of the massive water-storage projects, the A-1, before construction was called off in 2008 amid lawsuits and shifting political winds.

Negron, naturally, said he welcomed the governor’s support, but expressed some doubts about lending out state money to help repair the Lake Okeechobee dike, which he said “is unquestionably a federal responsibility.” What’s the guarantee the feds will pay us back?

Nonetheless, no one can argue that it’s a good thing to strengthen the dike as soon as possible.

Negron has done an adroit job so far of nudging many competing — and reluctant — parties together toward the goal of building the south reservoir, which the Post has argued is long overdue. By downsizing the plan and focusing on state-owned lands, he improved the project’s chances with Scott, who could no longer object that agricultural jobs would be jeopardized by the reservoir; we all know how much importance this governor places on jobs. And with Scott’s OK, now even growers seem to be on board.

That leaves matters up to the House, whose Speaker, Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has repeatedly echoed sugar-industry talking points. Here’s hoping he takes the same posture as the governor.

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