(The Center Square) – Senate Republicans are moving ahead with Senate President Wilton Simpson’s call to accelerate water restoration projects north of Lake Okeechobee despite concerns it could siphon money and momentum away from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ $2.5 billion water quality improvement plan south of the lake.
The Senate Environment & Natural Resources Committee Tuesday unanimously approved Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford. The measure would expedite the $1.96 billion Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP).
The bill would require the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SwiftMud) to conduct “necessary scientific investigation and monitoring” to begin the project and request the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “seek congressional approval of a project implementation report for LOWRP” before the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 is voted on by Congress later this year.
In comments since December, Simpson said it was “a mistake” to adopt 2017’s SB 10, a suite of Everglades projects that included construction of the 240,000-acre-foot Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir project and three stormwater treatment area (STA) impoundments south of 730-square-mile Lake Okeechobee.
The projects are either under construction or in final planning stages with Florida halfway through DeSantis’ four-year, $2.5 billion water quality initiative that includes the $1.6 billion EAA reservoir project.
In his $96.6 billion Florida Leads budget request, the governor is requesting its third year $625 million allocation, which includes $473 million for EAA, $50 million for springs restoration, $145 million for “targeted” projects and $25 million to combat algal blooms and red tide.
In a Feb. 4 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Simpson criticized the “disproportionate amount of time and funding” spent on water projects south instead of north of Lake Okeechobee. He said 92 percent of the phosphorus and 89 percent of the nitrogen in the lake comes from the north.
“The aggressive timeline for southern storage has been at the expense of very important interventions north of the lake,” Simpson told the Corps. “Unfortunately, this timeline and the policy and funding priorities associated with it have unnecessarily pitted north against south and perpetuated the false narrative that a southern reservoir alone will solve the problem. I reject that narrative, and it is for this reason I have advocated that a concurrent focus on problems north of the lake – where the Everglades begin – is key to an efficient, effective and complete restoration.”
Simpson’s call to renew focus north of the lake drew sharp retorts from Republicans in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C, particularly from U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, who represents parts of Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, who chastised the Senate president for “pitting north versus south.”
But Brodeur told the Senate Environment & Natural Resources Committee Tuesday that expediting the studies and administrative components necessary for the LOWRP will not take money or time away from the EAA.
“We have got to find ways of dealing with this,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. “I would say that we needed this more than even south of Lake Okeechobee in my opinion.”
SB 94 would address water quality and flooding issues for South Florida residents while also assisting farmers south and north of the lake, said Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula.
“When you have science and logic and common sense that tells you that this process can help solve a huge problem for South Florida – and at the same time not take productive farmland or productive land for some level of development out of the taxing structure for those local, fiscally-constrained communities – why does that not make sense?” he asked.