A petition has more than 37,400 signatures against a Senate bill that, opponents say, poses a threat to more clean water flows south to the Everglades. The full Senate will now consider the proposal, which has opposition from Gov. Ron DeSantis, environmental organizations and local Keys fishing guides.

Senate Bill 2508, which surfaced from the Senate Appropriations Committee on Feb. 4, addresses funding decisions related to environmental resources in the Senate’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Before the release of state funds, the proposed bill requires the South Florida Water Management District to certify recommendations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that do not “diminish the quantity of water available to existing legal users.” In addition, the bill authorizes use of state funds, originally set aside for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, also be utilized for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed — namely the C-43 West Basin Reservoir Storage project and the Indian River Lagoon-South project. 

On Feb. 9, the bill moved out of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee via a 16-4 vote. The bill goes before Senators for second reading on Thursday, Feb. 17. 

The recent subcommittee meeting was the first chance that the public had to voice comments on Senate Bill 2508. Many Keys fishing guides, including Matt Bellinger, ventured to Tallahassee to relay their concerns. A backcountry captain of 32 years, Bellinger told legislators how he saw the loss of 70,000 acres of seagrass inside Everglades National Park due to salinity issues in a two-day period.

“It was a season of drought, but we had no water coming in. It was the same time water was being sent east and west to Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie canals, destroying their environment. If that was going to a reservoir, which is under construction, these things would have never happened,” he said. 

The legislation highlights an ongoing battle over Lake Okeechobee’s water supply in various parts of Florida. City of West Palm Beach officials are backing the Senate proposal, which they say prioritizes water for nearly 130,000 residents, customers and visitors. Organizations like The Everglades Foundation and Captains for Clean Water, as well as Keys fishing guides, say the bill would reverse years of progress in Everglades restoration. 

According to the Everglades Foundation, the bill jeopardizes construction of the EAA Reservoir, which would send clean water south while reducing damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the east and west coasts. Also at risk is a balanced approach to water management reached through the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), which considers future Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan infrastructure that provides additional flexibility for lake operation. 

“The EAA reservoir is the crown jewel of Everglades restoration,” states the Everglades Foundation. “We cannot allow it to be jeopardized. There’s too much at stake. The Everglades Foundation will continue to fight to construct the EAA reservoir and reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee.”

Around 36,000 signatures were secured for a petition posted by Captains for Clean Water opposing Senate Bill 2508. The nonprofit organization, which fights to restore and preserve water resources, said the bill is bad policy with major consequences for Florida’s environment and economy. 

“This bill contains substantive pieces of policy legislation that were not heard in the legislative committee process and are being fast-tracked with virtually no accountability or transparency,” the organization said. “Among several harmful provisions, this bill would result in more harmful discharges that fuel toxic algae blooms, give preferential treatment to the water supply needs of the sugar industry, and threaten two critical components to solving south Florida’s water crisis: the EAA Reservoir and the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).” 

State Sen. Ben Albritton, bill sponsor, said during the subcommittee meeting on Feb. 9 that those who spoke out against the bill were being misled. In addition, he acknowledged that the SFWMD’s budget is funded primarily by the state.

“Are you really telling me that because the state of Florida gives them 70% of their money, it’s unfair to ask for some more accountability from them?” he said. 

DeSantis said rather than advancing legislation to effect a major policy change, Senate Bill 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark. 

A budget proposal by the governor contained $960 million for Everglades restoration, which brings the four-year investment to more than $3 billion. 

“I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades,” DeSantis said in a statement. “Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the EAA Reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.”

Senate Appropriations chair Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, disagreed with DeSantis. A vote by the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 9 saw Republicans and Democrats approving the proposal. 

“I do not think we’re ramming anything through the budget process,” she said. 

Albritton said the legislature writes the law, and he acknowledged that it’s an opportunity to enhance the entire Everglades reservoir. 

Capt. Steve Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, said he’s seen what mismanagement and lack of funding can do to the bays and estuaries. He traveled to the state capital having learned about the bill just before the subcommittee meeting. He was joined by many other local guides. 

“You can see many of us rallied to let you know the importance of how we feel this will jeopardize not only our lives, but many lives of South Florida, including hotels, restaurants and many businesses,” he said. “I think this goes far beyond just a few fishing guides who might not be able to catch as many fish. 

“I think what we need to do is look at it a little bit more closely and understand this is political strategy,” he continued. “And we’re seeing through this strategy. Last-minute filings like this that try to undermine what we’ve been working on for years, spending hundreds of hours coming up here fighting for clean water in Florida, and fighting for our livelihoods…”

State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez told the Keys Weekly that she’s expressed her concerns to Senate leadership and was told a solution is in the works. 

“I don’t have any further details at the moment but was told the bill would improve significantly,” she said. 

THURSDAY UPDATE

Several amendments were made to the bill by Albritton before reaching the Senate floor Thursday. One included the removal of a provision that would divert money away from the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project, thus maintaining funding for the project approved under Senate Bill 10 in 2017. Language was also removed that required the South Florida Water Management District to “not diminish the quantity of water available to existing users.”

“The legislature finds that Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule and any operating manual must balance the different interests across the system, including, but not limited to, safeguarding the water supply to society and the environment, reducing high-volume discharges to coastal estuaries, and providing for flood control,” the amendment reads. 

The bill passed via a 37-2 vote on Thursday. 

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Jim McCarthy is a northerner who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since his graduation from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3 years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. Behind every community is resiliency and resolve in difficult times. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim serves as President of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. “It’s a group that lives by the motto ‘Service Above Self,’” he says. “We’ve done service projects at the Tavernier nursing home, sitting down and socializing with residents. “We’ve also supplied cameras to young students exploring the Keys ecosystem.” Jim loves sports, family and time exploring underneath the water depths.