State water managers who oversee resources for 9 million Floridians were not consulted on a controversial water supply bill a Senate committee approved Wednesday.
SB 2508, which could guarantee agriculture gets the irrigation water it wants to siphon off Lake Okeechobee even when the level is low, will be heard by the Senate Feb. 17.
South Florida Water Management District Chair Chauncey Goss was among the many who addressed to the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday.
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The district is concerned the bill is “upsetting the balance,” Goss said, in the multiyear process of writing a new Lake O management plan that will determine discharge amounts to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers for the next decade or more.
Why wasn’t the SFWMD looped in before the bill was filed Friday, halfway through the Jan. 11 to March 11 session, asked Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican.
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” replied Sen. Ben Albritton, a Bartow Republican who filed the bill as chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government.
“But ultimately, they are in the loop today,” Albritton said. “It is our responsibility to do what we believe is right. That’s the way I’d answer that.”
Captains for Clean Water oppose bill
Several South Florida environment groups spoke in opposition to the bill Wednesday.
Critics said the bill would prioritize agriculture over the environment and give preference to other projects over the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, which is designed to reduce Lake O discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee by a combined 63%.
Some also worried about an increase in Lake O discharges, which can pollute those rivers with toxic algae blooms that are dangerous to people, pets and wildlife.
Captains for Clean Water, whose members include fishing guides reliant on good water quality, presented a petition with over 16,000 signatures obtained in under 24 hours.
The bill would reverse years of progress in improving water quality in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon, said member Mike Holliday, a Stuart-based fishing guide who drove to Tallahassee Tuesday afternoon to oppose the bill.
“As you probably well know, 22 million people live in Florida. Sixteen million of them live on the coast. There’s a reason for that: We have a water-oriented economy,” Holliday told Senate committee members. “If you pass this bill, all you members of the Senate … your legacy will be the total collapse of South Florida’s water-based economy.”
Bill ensures farm irrigation water
Lawmakers who support the bill rebutted those concerns, denying the bill threatens EAA reservoir funding and claiming critics were “misled” on the purpose of the legislation.
Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Melbourne Republican, blamed “the power of social media” for opponents being “misinformed” on the bill’s goal. She said two of her sons even texted her with their concerns over the legislation.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican egg farmer from Trilby who’s running for agriculture commissioner, supports the bill, spokesperson Katie Betta said.
The bill doesn’t affect EAA reservoir funding nor prioritize water supply over reducing Lake O discharges to the coastal estuaries, Betta told TCPalm Tuesday.
The bill, according to its text, would ensure the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) rules do not “diminish the quantity of water available to existing legal users” and “do not otherwise adversely impact existing legal users.”
In addition to sugar and vegetable farmers, South Florida municipalities and the Seminole Tribe of Florida are permitted to take drinking water from Lake O.
The bill came on the heels of the SFWMD asking the Army Corps of Engineers to let the state agency make water management decisions when Lake O’s level drops. When the lake is low, the priority can shift from the Army Corps’ mandate to prevent a dike breaching flooding towns to the SFWMD’s responsibility to provide water supply, the agency said.
The committee approved the bill by a 16-4 vote. Dissenting votes were cast by Brandes and three Democrats: Sens. Jason Pizzo of Miami and Linda Stewart and Randolph Bracy, both of Orlando.
Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter focusing on issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Louis. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnesemail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and give him a call at 772-978-2224.