Negron wants to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee to stop algae outbreak

An ambitious plan to buy land south of bloated Lake Okeechobee for water storage was unveiled Tuesday by Senate President-designate Joe Negron, who believes the proposal could help end decades of water woes in Florida.

The $2.4 billion proposal pinpointed two agricultural parcels south and southwest of the lake that Negron said are viable areas for storing 120 billion gallons of water to ease harmful discharges into the fragile St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Lakeographic

A standing-room only auditorium in Negron’s home base of Stuart cheered the announcement, which advances what many activists have been pleading for – to send Lake Okeechobee water south. The fact that the idea came from a Senate-president elect whose influence in Tallahassee is a powerful ally was not lost on proponents.

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“His leadership role puts him in a great position to make sure this is a top propriety issue,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, deputy director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida. “It’s a clear depiction of leadership at a time when folks are looking for a big solution to come out of the state of Florida.”

But the plan has many hurdles, including convincing the land owners to sell.

Negron said just one of the two parcels is needed, but both are about 60 percent owned by politically-powerful Florida Crystals. U.S. Sugar owns about 30 percent of a parcel almost directly south of the lake. King Ranch owns about 30 percent of a parcel southwest of the lake, which is entirely in western Palm Beach County.

“We will be reviewing the details of the plan announced today by Sen. Joe Negron as soon as they are made available to the public, especially since his proposal calls for taking another 60,000 acres of productive farmland out of production in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), most of which is our private land,” said Florida Crystals Vice President Gaston Cantens, in a statement.

Florida Crystals and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative support storing and cleaning water north of Lake Okeechobee before the nutrient-rich runoff reaches the lake.

Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor said she fears Glades-area jobs would be lost if farmland is converted to reservoirs.

“Solving the problems of his community should not occur at the expense of our communities,” Taylor said about Negron.

Clewiston residents don't want Lake Okeechobee to flood sugarcane fields south of the lake.

Clewiston residents don’t want Lake Okeechobee  water to flood sugarcane fields south of the lake.

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Still, Negron said he’s hopeful a sale can be negotiated, even if it’s not on the exact parcels he identified.

“I’m optimistic they will keep an open mind,” Negron said about the land owners. “I don’t think it has to be adversarial in any way and we need their cooperation and good will in order to make this happen.”

Negron dismissed eminent domain as an option, calling it a “distraction” that would take too much time and money.

Algae flows out of Lake Okeechobee on Friday, July 8. Photo by Palm Beach Post photographer Joe Forzano

Algae flows out of Lake Okeechobee on Friday, July 8. Photo by Palm Beach Post photographer Joe Forzano

Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature have opposed buying land south of the lake, saying it is too costly and scientifically unproven. Negron said he spoke with the governor’s office about his plan, but did not say whether Scott was a supporter.

To get the money for a land purchase and reservoir construction, Negron proposes bonding $100 million in Amendment 1 money over 20 years and asking the federal government to match the state’s commitment. That would need congressional approval.

“My sense in talking to members of Congress and Sen. Marco Rubio and representatives from other offices is that everyone understands the status quo is unacceptable,” Negron said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing Lake Okeechobee water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries after record-setting winter rains swelled it to more than 16 feet above sea level in February. The Corps likes to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level or fear eroding portions of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which protects surrounding communities from flooding.

The lake discharges are blamed for “seeding” the brackish waters of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries with algae. The algae got so thick in the St. Lucie River, clogging marinas and temporarily closing the popular Bathtub Beach in Martin County, that Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency in June.

Historically, Lake Okeechobee water flowed south through the Everglades and into Florida Bay. But in developing South Florida, humans built roads that blocked that natural flow, carved canals to control water movement and generally disrupted the Everglades ecosystem.

Tom Van Lent, an engineer and vice-president with the Everglades Foundation, called Negron’s move a “very important step” toward breaking a political deadlock over land-buying.

Van Lent said this summer’s algae outbreak has added momentum to the need for addressing Lake Okeechobee discharges.

“It certainly made this problem very real to people, and made them understand more about the consequence of what we’re doing,” Van Lent said. “It’s brought this issue home.”

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