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DeSantis opposes bill giving farmers priority over Lake Okeechobee water usage

The governor and environmental groups are concerned the measure would impede any progress on Everglades restoration.
Credit: AP
A boat sails in Okeechobee Lake, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, in Clewiston, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A bill making its way through the Florida Senate is drawing the ire of environmental groups and the governor who say it "derails progress" toward Everglades restoration.

The bill (SB 2508), gives farmers priority over how to use water from Lake Okeechobee. It does this by requiring the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to make recommendations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that won't diminish the amount of water available to "existing legal users."

Florida Politics reports that during Wednesday's Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, groups of fishing guides and environmental advocates spoke against the bill, saying it was intended to protect sugar farmers who have land south of the lake. The concern is that the water usage would be at the expense of the Everglades.

When nutrient-rich water from the lake is shunted to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, it can lead to more frequent algae blooms that kill sea life. Allowing the water to flow south through the Everglades can reduce that pollution. 

In a statement, Gov. Ron DeSantis took a position against the bill. He said he opposes "any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades."

"Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark," DeSantis said in his statement. 

The governor said he also rejects any attempt to deprioritize the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir project. In 2017, Florida lawmakers approved funding the state's half of the EAA reservoir; the other half relies on federal funds. The project aims to create a reservoir that would store excess water from Lake Okeechobee.

You can read more about the project here.

Another group voicing its displeasure with the bill is the agency mentioned in it. During a governing board meeting on Thursday, members of the SFWMD were displeased that lawmakers did not consult them.  

"I was a little bit surprised to hear of the filing of the bill 2508 on Friday evening, sort of in the dark of night," SFWMD Vice Chairman Scott Wagner said.

Wagner added that SFWMD was "left in the dark" on the bill which directly affects their operations.

"Something was afoot," Wagner said. 

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson offered a supportive stance on the bill. In a statement, Simpson's office said the measure "protects state water rights from federal government intrusion."

"Floridians have invested billions of their hard-earned dollars in environmental restoration and this Senate is going to safeguard that investment. I am never going to cede one inch of state authority over our water resources to Joe Biden’s federal government – the same administration that did not include one dollar of federal funding for the reservoir in their so-called infrastructure bill," Simpson's statement read.

Wednesday's public opposition fell on deaf ears as the bill was approved by the committee in a 16-4 vote. The bill is tied to the state's budget, which means Wednesday was the only day for public comment. It now will be one of the many measures negotiated between the House and Senate.

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