Sen. Jack Latvala said he was still waiting to hear alternatives to the 60,000-acre Everglades land buy -- after he'd just listened to a pretty darn good one from Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood.
"I haven't seen any other ideas laid out," said Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee Chairman Latvala, R-Clearwater, ahead of Tuesday's vote.
Even Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, sponsor of Senate President Joe Negron's bill, said in a press gaggle later, "I challenge everyone who has an interest in this to bring forward real solutions."
Come on, people, dig out the ear wax.
Simmons, an attorney who sits on Latvala's committee, had just stepped up to the plate with another plan -- a "temporary solution," he called it -- but it needn't be. I figure he labeled it "temporary" because for the time being he wanted to tippy-toe around Negron's pride and joy. Certainly, it sounded mighty permanent.
Bottom line: Expedite restoration of the Herbert Hoover Dike.
Simmons claims dike restoration, when put on steroids, will do the same thing as the Negron plan in three years instead of what he knows "will take 15, 20, maybe even 25 years to accomplish," to end the damaging Lake Okeechobee discharges. "The plans are there to refortify that dike."
A finished Herbert Hoover restoration will also protect residents of the Glades communities, now in the shadow of the nation's second most failure-threatened dike.
AND, should lawmakers choose NOT to spend Amendment 1 money on the 60,000 private acres in the Everglades, good news: A Lake Okeechobee that can accommodate 19 feet of water, plus the 31,000 acres the state already owns south of the lake, its A1 and A2 reservoirs with deep-well capacity, will provide as much storage as we get in the Negron plan.
This is something we've heard before, but not from a legislator.
"We'll have 564,000 acre feet of storage, same as 60,000 acres at 10 feet (deep)," Simmons said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in Florida at the state's invitation. It's the state that owns the land, therefore the state has plenty of leverage, Simmons said. He believes the South Florida Water Management District and the Corps can work together to get the work done in three years. He is preparing an amendment to put the mandatory three-and-done dike work into Negron's Senate Bill 10.
"Everyone wins if we choose the right solution," said Simmons.
Have a look at Simmons' presentation in the clip from Tuesday's meeting on this page.
Frankly, I love his idea. In fact, I had similar thoughts last week, even phoned John Campbell, public affairs and emergency management professional at the Corps.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has invested $870 million on dike rehabilitation since 2001, primarily to reduce seepage. Yet, the job is considered only half done. Half done in 16 years. Money the Corps budgeted for "seepage control" on the dike for FY 2017 is $49.5 million.
What if, I asked Campbell, instead of plunging Floridians into debt for an estimated $1.2 billion land buy in the Everglades (Florida's share), legislators instead considered applying the money to a more urgent, life-and-limb-threatening Lake Okeechobee problem?
Specifically, shoring up the Herbert Hoover Dike. Couldn't that help accomplish the same end as Negron's water plan?
Being able to add another foot and a half to the lake surely would make it possible to ensure the safety of Glades residents and beef up south-of-the-lake storage on land the state already owns -- minimizing or eliminating the need for lake discharges.
Lloyd's of London, the world's specialist insurance market, tells us the big lake is "ranked second by the International Hurricane Research Center in a list of the most vulnerable U.S. mainland areas to hurricanes." Simmons was entirely right about that. It was in 2007 when they wrote their first "Lloyd's Emerging Risks" report, and it is still ranked second today. From an insurance point of view, no change in the risk.
In the Lloyd's report, in which they focused on the dike, they chillingly write, "As well as the total of 40,000 residents whose houses and lives would obviously be in serious danger, there could be far-reaching effects for the whole of southern Florida should the Herbert Hoover Dike fail. The three counties to the immediate southeast of Lake Okeechobee have a combined population in excess of 5 million residents. Recovery could take years, with economic losses likely to run to the tens of billions of dollars. This would be in addition to any related wind losses, which are also likely to be measured in billions."
The South Florida Water Management District commissioned a report in 2006 to review the stability and safety of the dike. The report concludes, “The current condition of Herbert Hoover poses a grave and imminent danger… [The dike] needs to be fixed. We can only add that it needs to be fixed now, and it needs to be fixed right. We firmly believe that the region’s future depends on it.” It was that report that compelled Gov. Jeb Bush to write the letter to the Corps to which Simmons referred during Tuesday's meeting.
Lloyd's included SFWMD's analysis in its report. The company also included a warning to insurers writing policies in Florida:
"Insurers should be aware of research papers, such as those reviewed in this report and scientific advances, particularly with regard to climate change to factor forecasts when pricing catastrophe exposed risks in southern Florida. Catastrophe models, in general, do not model levee failure. Insurers must be aware of all possible sources of potential loss when pricing risks and evaluating capital requirements."
I reminded the Corps' Campbell of Lloyd's report. He knew it very well, and told me between that and the report from SFWMD, the Corps was motivated to revisit its engineering on dike repairs.
The bottom line is, the $870 million investment has paid for installation of 21.4 miles of cutoff wall between Port Mayaca and Belle Glade on the southeast side of the lake. It has also funded a huge program to replace old water control structures, commonly known as culverts, around the lake. The Corps identified the condition of the culverts as the greatest risk for dike stability because of significant erosion around the structures.
The residents of the Glades communities remain in harm's way. That alone is enough reason to pay closer attention to Sen. Simmons.
The Corps is set to award the first contract to resume installation of cutoff wall west of Belle Glade. Engineers plan to install 35 miles of the seepage barrier through Lake Harbor, Clewiston, and Moore Haven. More cutoff wall is planned near the community of Lakeport on the west side of the lake.
Campbell says completion, due in 2025, will cost $800 million more.
OK, so what will it take for the Corps to accelerate dike restoration? Can we complete eight years of work in three? Campbell says problems abound.
First, it will take money, he says, and a lot of it. You would have to double or triple the construction teams.
More difficult is finding your workers. Where are they going to come from? There are only so many qualified teams who can build a dike/dam/levee, Campbell says, and most are employed on other projects elsewhere in the nation.
"I think shaving off a little time is possible," Campbell said. "Maybe a couple of years. But it would take some doing, and beyond that, I wouldn't say."
Have we come to a place where Gov. Rick Scott could call in some favors, exercise his influence on President Donald Trump? I remember once in the 1980s, when Jupiter Island wanted sand pumped in to renourish its beaches, former Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Nathaniel Reed, whose parents founded the Town of Jupiter Island, picked up the phone and in 10 minutes got the Corps to turn one of its dredges around to return to South Florida. Reed was only a former ranking Cabinet functionary, Trump is the president, for heaven's sake. We don't know what's possible until we try, right? In the meantime, surely we can do more to put the squeeze on the Army Corps to bring the dike timetable forward.
Ask yourself how long a 60,000-acre southern reservoir will take to get up and running. On second thought, don't ask yourself. Ask an engineer with knowledge of Negron's water plan and Everglades restoration.
Maybe Simmons' amendment will get some traction, but I have my doubts. I'm afraid the Senate is a kangaroo court. There's only one idea going anywhere. Only one plan in Negron's upper chamber to end damaging Lake Okeechobee releases. His own.
Both Latvala and Bradley promised Glades farmers SB 10 will include an economic development component -- in other words, a plan to replace with some other work the agricultural and related jobs likely to be lost when the state zeroes out productive farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).
Negron, Bradley, Latvala -- they all have the best of intentions. I really believe that. But is anybody buying an influx of replacement jobs in the Everglades, where rural people have been farming for more than 100 years?
Call me cynical, but these three remind me of the Secret Service agent who whispered in Robert F. Kennedy's ear as he entered the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, "Don't worry, Bobby, we've got your back."
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith