TALLAHASSEE — Northern storage is key to solving Lake Okeechobee’s problems, according to Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson.
Simpson addressed the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s transportation and infrastructure virtual summit on Dec. 8.
“We’ve going to have to address the budget shortfall,” he said. “There’s going to be less money so there is going to be less government.” The Legislature may have to cut this year’s budget by $3.5 million to $4 million. Meanwhile, 900 or more people a day are going to continue to move to Florida, he continued.
“You cannot have the tourism the State of Florida has been blessed with without clean water,” he said.
Agriculture was the largest user of water in the state until about 15 to 20 years ago, explained Simpson. “Two things happened there. First the population continued to grow, so they were using more and more. Secondly, farmers are using more drip irrigation, smart watering techniques, computer and technology systems to know when to water, so you don’t need to water as often. You’ve seen a reduction in some water uses in agriculture of 50, 60, 70, 80% for the exact same crop.”
Agriculture is something “we have to protect at all costs,” Simpson said. “Agriculture, in the last eight months, has been the leading driver of the economy in the state of Florida.”
In good times, tourism is the number one driver of the economy. In bad times, agriculture is the leading driver, he explained.
Simpson said he believes Senate Bill 10, which put the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir on the fast track, was a mistake.
“All of the problems are actually in the Northern Everglades,” he continued. “If you solve the Northern Everglades problems, you substantially solve your problem.
“If you build northern storage — which we budgeted $50 million a year the past two years to get started on — you capture that water before it comes into Lake Okeechobee and you put it into the aquifer.
“It doesn’t go into the lake to have to be discharged, so that’s a positive.
“During drought time it allows you to pull that water back from the aquifer and use it to, we can’t say ‘drought-proof’ but certainly it can go a long way toward having a water storage process in place.
“I think this year we will spend a lot of time talking about the Northern Everglades restoration, and obviously that Northern Everglades comes all the way up to Orlando,” he continued.
“We need to take the nutrients out of the water right there, and before it gets to the lake and we need to store it and then we can use it during drought times.”
Simpson said he thinks they should delay construction of the EAA reservoir, which is currently in the design phase by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said storage north will provide more than twice “the bang for our buck.”
He said the legislature will also focus on an aggressive septic-to-sewer program. He said septic tanks are the biggest source of pollution to Florida’s springs.