Gov. Rick Scott pushes for money to repair Lake Okeechobee dike

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PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA
  • Photo courtesy of NASA
Gov. Rick Scott waded into the legislative battle over Everglades restoration Monday.

The governor gave support to a revised Senate water-storage plan and called for lawmakers to financially help the federal government speed repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee.

In a news conference as the legislative session entered its final three weeks, Scott urged lawmakers to add $200 million to the budget to help the federal government's ongoing repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike.

Scott also backed a redrawn water-storage plan south of Lake Okeechobee that has been a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. The revised plan would initially use state-owned land —- rather than seek to dig into existing farmland —- for a reservoir and drop the potential price tag to $1.5 billion.

Negron has focused on the issue, in part, because of polluted water that has been discharged from the lake into waterways to the east and the west, including waterways in Negron's district. Building a reservoir would allow moving water south from the lake instead of into the other waterways.

"If we can start working to fix the dike, we can help solve a lot of the water issues we have seen with Lake O," said Scott, who met with seven Senate leaders individually prior to his announcement on Monday. "Repairing the dike is key to enhancing the water quality in South Florida. I am going to be very aggressive at doing whatever we can to protect our environment."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers currently anticipates a $1.7 billion project to reinforce the dike could be completed by 2025.

The Senate voted 36-3 last week to send the revised water bill (SB 10) to the House.

Asked to comment on Scott's proposal, House Speaker Richard Corcoran on Monday called the "south of the lake" proposal and costs "not a new development."

"We're just beginning initial budget negotiations now and this proposal along with many others will be the subject of House and Senate negotiations," Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said in a statement.

Negron, praising Scott's past support for Everglades restoration and efforts to reduce toxic algae in east and west coast waters following lake discharges, expressed some concern Monday about getting repaid for the dike work.

"I want to make sure we do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars of (state) general revenue funds on what is unquestionably a federal responsibility," Negron said in a statement. "I have shared these concerns with Gov. Scott, and I appreciate the governor continuing to work with our new federal partners to expedite the timetable for these necessary repairs."

Earlier in the legislative session, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, proposed advancing state money from the dike work, but the proposal did not advance.

Scott said he's addressed his desire to complete the dike repairs by 2022 with President Donald Trump's administration. He also said state money could be freed up for the environmental work because of a federal commitment last week to boost what is known as Low Income Pool health-care funding to $1.5 billion.

The Senate proposal seeks $64 million in the state budget next fiscal year for the reservoir. The House is opposed to part of the Senate proposal that would lead to issuing bonds in future years to help pay for the work.

The storage plan, which has also drawn questions from sugar farmers, politicians and residents south of the lake, would require a still-uncommitted 50 percent match from the federal government.

Scott's proposal quickly drew support from farmers south of the lake as "following science and seeking real solutions."

"We are pleased to see this discussion shift from political propaganda to focus on fact-based solutions and real collaboration with the state's federal partners," said Danielle Alvarez, a spokeswoman for EAA Farmers.

The Senate proposal seeks to accelerate plans for the reservoir —- part of a larger ongoing Everglades project effort called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan —- to clean water that can be sent toward Florida Bay.

Scott said his support for the Senate's water bill improved after the proposal was revised last week to focus first on using state-owned land for the reservoir.

"There is a lot about the bill I like, and I know it is still going through the process," Scott said. "But ultimately, I hope the Legislature sends me a great bill that addresses the Lake Okeechobee problem and benefits our environment and takes into consideration the agriculture community."

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