No money to buy Lake Okeechobee land in Gov. Rick Scott’s budget

, isadora.rangel@tcpalm.com Published 5:42 p.m. ET Jan. 31, 2017 

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed state budget doesn’t include money to build a reservoir to curb Lake Okeechobee discharges, and instead focuses on eliminat
ing septic tanks to address toxic algae blooms that plague both coasts.

Scott’s priorities, unveiled Tuesday, don’t include buying 60,000 acres for the reservoir to store excess lake water that currently gets discharged east and west — a priority of Republican Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart.

Waves of algae in the St. Lucie River are seen off
Waves of algae in the St Lucie River, NE Alice St. 6.24.2016 (photo:  Eric Hasert /TCN)

Negron and supporters of the land purchase said they aren’t sweating it. Governors propose budgets and have veto power over them. But the Legislature writes and passes them, dropping or adding new items. So it will be up to lawmakers to square it off.

Negron pointed out Scott signed a law last year that gives priority to Everglades restoration projects that reduce discharges and declared a state of emergency because of last summer’s algae blooms.

“I don’t expect the governor to put the priorities of
the House and Senate in his initial budget,” Negron said. “I have the burden of proof to convince him and to convince my colleagues.”

Scott’s office said he’s focusing on $215 million to complete storage projects already on the books, according to a Q&A budget proposal sheet. Those planned and in-progress projects include the ongoing construction of the C-44 Canal reservoir to clean and store runoff that flows into the St. Lucie River.

Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper noted the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers still fared well in Scott’s proposal, mainly $40 million toward a 50/50 matching grant for local communities affected by algae blooms to connect to sewer lines.

Septic tanks, whether leaky or fully functioning, have been found to be a major cause of pollution in the St. Lucie River, according to a Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute study Martin County commissioned last year. That’s because Florida’s underground water is very close to the surface where the tanks are located. Advocates of the land buy say waste from septic tanks should be addressed, but they point out last summer’s algae blooms started in Lake Okeechobee and flowed into the St. Lucie River with discharges.

Scott also proposed these solutions to algae blooms:

• Removing muck from the Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee River;

• Finishing existing Everglades restoration projects with $250 million allocated for various projects;

• Buying land needed for reservoirs for the C-23 and C-24 canals, which flow into the North Fork of the St. Lucie River.

OBSTACLES

Scott hasn’t publicly opposed or supported Negron’s push to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee, but his appointees at the South Florida Water Management District have said the state already owns enough land.

Scott’s proposed budget is another obstacle to a bill Negron is pushing that mandates the district to look for willing sellers and the Legislature to borrow half of the $2.4 billion cost of the reservoir. The federal government would foot the other half.

The House isn’t “ready” to borrow money when Florida is losing revenue and dealing with soaring Medicaid and education costs, GOP Speaker Richard Corcoran said hours after the bill was filed Thursday.

Another point of contention in previous legislative sessions has been how much land the state should buy for preservation under the Florida Forever program. Scott proposed $25.5 million for the program this year, with just less than half of it going into land for parks. He didn’t recommend any money to pay agricultural landowners not to develop their land, a program that received $35 million last year.

Draper said he wishes Scott had asked for more for land purchases. The Legislature has been reluctant to buy more land because it costs money to manage it.

“There’s a lot of good things in the budget,” Draper said, “but land acquisition is where we wish (Scott) had done a little bit more.”

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