Sen. Joe Negron’s statesmanlike news conference demonstrated how deeply he cares about water issues.
There’s no doubt his plan to buy 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee will be heralded in his hometown, but in all likelihood, the plan will be met with many roadblocks in Tallahassee.
In short, the idea is politically untenable, costs too much, and is scientifically unproven. But few things have ever stopped an incoming Senate president from shooting for the stars.
First, there was initial sticker shock at the price of the plan: $2.8 billion, to be split between the state and federal government. To raise that sum of money, the project will be bonded — a non-starter with Gov. Rick Scott and the frugal Republicans in the Florida House.
Then there’s also the fact that buying land would involve taking farmland from sugarcane growers, which have resisted giving up land. And should the land be purchased, there’s still an estimated $2 billion in construction that would need to be completed — bringing the total of Negron’s plan to approximately $4.8 billion.
The reality is that, for nearly two decades, both the state and federal government have committed significant resources to finish the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) — a plan that has enjoyed broad support from environmentalists and the agricultural industry.
Negron’s plan provides state and federal leaders with a detour at a time when they have been looking for an expressway to finish the projects.
There’s also the practicality of buying 60,000 acres of farmland. Rep. Matt Caldwell, who may have designs on running for Commissioner of Agriculture, cannot afford to allow the sale of 60,000 acres of farmland on his watch.
And as for Commissioner Adam Putnam, a farmer himself, this issue could be the opening salvo of the 2018 governor’s race. This is his moment to stand up for an industry embattled by crop loss and economic hardship over the last few years.
The plan is also lacking in science and ignores the practical reality of sequence in planning for storage south of Lake Okeechobee. Last week, the South Florida Water Management District responded to Congressman Patrick Murphy’s request to build storage south of Lake Okeechobee by stating it has no plans to expedite planning for storage before 2021.
Even if Negron’s plan were to pass the Legislature, and dollars start flowing, the project itself wouldn’t be fully developed until well into the next decade. That’s a tough pill to swallow for backbench lawmakers laser-focused on the here and now.
The technical experts we’ve talked to say realistic assumptions show the project could probably only reduce lake releases by 12 percent, which amounts to only a 6 percent reduction of water to the St. Lucie estuary. To spend $4.8 billion with so little in return makes this plan unappealing to many outside the Treasure Coast.
Once the heat of the election wears off, Senate President-designate Negron and Treasure Coast lawmakers will be left to defend a plan many members have very little inclination to support.
When you add it all up — the price tag, politics, and optics of putting farmers out of business — it’s going to be difficult for Negron to broaden support for lawmakers who aren’t already working to solve the Lake Okeechobee dilemma.