Negron wants state takeover of Lake O discharges

Tallahassee Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE – The chairman of a Senate panel studying the Indian River Lagoon and South Florida waters wants to strip the federal government of the power to decide when to pump polluted waters out of Lake Okeechobee.

Sen. Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican chairing the Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin, blasted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tuesday over its decisions to pump waters out of the lake.

And he wants Congress to remove that decision-making from the Corps and give it to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“I’d like to vote for or against people who can raise my taxes and decide whether or not to flood my community,” Negron said.

The committee was created in response to a “perfect storm” of pollution and Mother Nature.

Two massive plankton blooms that began in 2011 – largely the fault of nutrient runoff from fertilized lands -- in the lagoon has killed off dolphins, manatees, pelicans and sea grasses.

Meanwhile, thanks to a wetter-than-usual rainy season, the lake waters -- fueled by flows from throughout Central Florida and fertilizer-laden farmlands -- have been pumped into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers in South Florida and mucked them up, prompting stinky algae blooms and hurting tourism in those coastal communities.

The panel issued a report Tuesday requesting more than $220 million in increased spending on improved plumbing and studies around the Kissimmee River, Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee in the wake of this year’s environmental disasters within those waters.

Most of the big-ticket money recommendations have already been touted.

Gov. Rick Scott has already pledged to push for $90 million to finish building a bridge on part of the Tamiami Trail to allow more water flow under it, and $40 million to build the C-44 reservoir on the St. Lucie side of Lake Okeechobee to slow discharges into the river.

The report also recommends providing $5 million to complete restoration work on the Kissimmee River and 20,000 acres of wetlands around it to reduce nutrient flows into the lake.
The spending recommendations will have stiff competition next year.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, also added a request for $20 million to help restore the northern end of Indian River lagoon in Brevard County -- a priority of the next Senate president, Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. 

Lawmakers are expecting to have a roughly $840 million budget surplus when they return to work in the spring 2014 legislative session beginning in March.

Scott has asked them to cut $500 million in taxes, and other groups are also competing for a portion of those extra tax dollars.

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