Lawmakers tackle big decisions on Lake O

Lawmakers tackle big decisions on Lake O

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There's quite a checklist for the state to tackle to make sure Lake Okeechobee doesn't cause another blue algae crisis.

For one, lawmakers need to finalize plans for a reservoir on the south side of the lake, without harming the livelihoods of the people who live there. The governor is also urging lawmakers to accelerate the process to fix the Herbert Hoover dike.

The people who live and work around the lake celebrated a major victory this month when lawmakers gutted Senate Bill 10. The bill, filed by Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) and backed by Florida Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart), aimed to use at least $3 billion of tax payer money to buy 60,000 acres of farmland to build reservoirs to hold Lake Okeechobee overcharge.

But after months of public outcry from area farmers and workers, lawmakers decided not to build a reservoir on farmland and instead opted for state-owned land.

As the state hashes out the final details, locals like Pastor Albert Polk are hopeful the state will stick to it's promises.

"They were wrong. We said it all along," he said. "We fought for our land. We fought for our jobs. We fought for our communities which were already challenged."

His group -- Guardians of the Glades -- had been fighting to protect the land he calls home by working with lawmakers all session long to change their mind on Senate bill 10.

"Instead of taking active farmland out of production and devastating our communities, the state has now decided to use state owned properties," said Polk. "Senate Bill 10 is being rewritten, revised. A lot of amendments are being made to the bill."

Polk said Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami) heard their cries and organized a town hall with Sen. Negron. That heated town hall meeting in Pahokee in March led to the changes seen in the bill now.

"They not only heard us, but they took action," said Polk. "We're grateful."

Lawmakers also threw in a bonus: the new legislation provides grants to establish training programs for agriculture workers.

But the fight isn't over. The state is still trying to figure out where to put the reservoir. They're now looking at a spot of just 3,000 acres, down from the 60,000 they were trying to take from farmland.

"You've already got 120,000 acres of state owned land in the beginning so you shouldn't have been knocking on our door in the beginning," said Polk.

Lawmakers have until the end of the session to finalize the details and the reservoir could still take years to build. But Polk hopes the state will stand by its word.

"We don't want the solution to the problem to devastate our already challenged communities," he said.

On Thursday, Gov. Scott urged lawmakers to stay on top of the issues surrounding Lake Okeechobee, including fixing the dikes.

"Right now if we don't do this, I don't know when the dike is gonna get finished," he told WPTV during a press conference, his first since coming back to the U.S. from a business trip to Argentina.

His urgent words come as he pushes lawmakers to invest $200 million of the state budget into fixing the dikes.

"Just think about that. $200 million of the $82 billion budget. We should care about our environment," he said. "When we have excess water, we get the algae blooms...And it impacts everyone's life in the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River."

Gov. Scott claims a stronger dike will allow the lake to hold more water and reduce the need for discharges that lead to toxic algae blooms.

This is welcome news for Polk, who said the current construction seen off Highway 27 in South Bay. The project stalled due to lack of funding.

"Ten years of hoping and praying that mother nature don't have it's way," he said. "It's been some years now and they're still working in the same area."

His group has been fighting to protect their livelihoods around the lake and hopes the governor's request won't fall on deaf ears in the state House and Senate.

"This is where we play, this is where we pray. It's where we stay. So we can't afford to see these Herbert Hoover dike repairs prolonged," he said.

Gov. Scott believes president trump is the answer. After the two met last week, Trump promised $1.5 billion to Florida for hospital funding, which frees up money for other parts of the state budget to expedite the dike repairs.

"I've been governor for a little over six years," Gov. Scott said. "I asked President Obama all those years to work on fixing the dike. We never got it fixed."

Scott told Trump his goal is to have the dike finished by 2022, instead of the original scope of 2025.

"He stepped up to the plate. This is a golden opportunity to accelerate fixing the dike and know we can have the dike fixed," he said.

He's urging residents to contact their local house members to support the $200 million proposal.

House leaders have voiced skepticism this session, with some concerned the federal government won't reimburse the state. Gov. Scott's request still has to be approved as lawmakers work to finish the budget by the end of the session.

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