Joe Negron defends controversial Lake Okeechobee land-buy bill
Negron, R-Stuart, said he believes his proposal to build a reservoir on about 60,000 acres south of the lake wouldn't put a Belle Glade sugar mill out of business, as opponents have claimed. He's not looking to buy land that's heavily farmed, and "we can work with landowners" to minimize potential impacts to jobs and production, he said. He didn't have any specifics on what that would entail.
"I think there’s a way we can structure this in a way that will have minimum impact on production and not to the extent you would be shutting down a factory or any kind of production," Negron said.
In an exclusive interview with TCPalm, Negron tried to allay concerns from residents of Pahokee, Belle Glade, Clewiston and other rural communities that rely heavily on the sugar industry, the largest owner of acreage south of the lake. Those communities have organized groups to condemn a bill filed last week as a jobs killer.
Negron's interview was broadcast live on TCPalm's Facebook page, where readers commented and asked questions about his plan. Here are the main takeaways from his discussion.
SOUTHERN RESERVOIR "INDISPENSABLE"
Negron said he's "fine with" proposals for increased storage north of Lake O, but a reservoir south of the lake plays a larger role in reducing discharges.
When the lake starts to rise with summer rains, he said, "you can't send the water north." A 2015 University of Florida study found the state needs storage north, south, east and west to curb discharges.
He also argued his opponents are using the need for northern storage to discredit his plan.
"Because there’s such a strong consensus for southern storage, opponents continue to bring up other issues and act as if they replace the need for that," Negron said.
CRITICISM FROM OTHER LAWMAKERS
Several state officials and lawmakers have questioned Negron's push for a reservoir south of the lake instead of a northern one the state and federal governments already are planning. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Tuesday there are better ways to spend the $2.4 billion Negron's proposal would cost in state and federal dollars.
Negron's response? Putnam would think differently if algae blooms were happening in his hometown of Bartow.
“If there was ooze and poisonous fluids flowing down the center of Bartow and Polk County, we wouldn’t be talking about an abstract schedule or making comments that somehow this is a political effort," Negron said. "As a member of the Cabinet, he has a responsibility to look after the environmental condition of every part of Florida.”
PUSHING U.S. SUGAR
U.S. Sugar Corp. agreed six years ago to sell more than 150,000 acres south of the lake to the state for Everglades restoration. Company officials have changed their minds, but the state still has a right to buy the land at market value. Negron's plan calls for the state to exercise that option if 60,000 acres can't be found.
Negron said that doesn't infringe on the company's property rights. "It was a voluntary option entered into by a willing property owner. ... The goal of this legislation is to have all the options on the table."
7 OUT OF 10 CHANCE
Negron gave his plan a 70 percent chance of clearing the Legislature this year. He still needs to convince Gov. Rick Scott and the House, which has raised concerns about borrowing $1.2 billion for the plan. Yet Negron said he and bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley have made more progress than he expected because many experts agree southern storage is a must.
"Because of how big the issue is and because of the amount of money it takes to address it in a comprehensive way, that's what makes it difficult," he said.
DISCHARGES CAUSE BLOOMS, PERIOD
Negron said it was "ridiculous" to argue that algae blooms are caused by septic tanks and not Lake Okeechobee discharges. The blooms that blanketed the St. Lucie River around Stuart last summer "were 100 percent caused by the discharges," Negron said, "and when the discharges stopped, the conditions improved."
That jibes with the opinion of a majority of scientists. "There's no challenging the fact that the algae is coming from Lake Okeechobee," Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, told Treasure Coast Newspapers in July. "The lake is the biggest single source of the blue-green algae bloom in the St. Lucie River estuary."
Negron faces many fiscal conservatives who don't want the state to borrow more money, including Gov. Scott. He said his plan to finance the land buy and reservoir over the next 20 years with $100 million annual payments won't hurt Florida's credit ratings.
"We’ll still have AAA bond ratings," he said. "We’ll still be well within the metrics that are used for us to stay under. I'd never support any sort of bonding that wasn’t fiscally supportive."