Sen. Nelson says federal government will complete dike work by 2022

OKEECHOBEE — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was in Okeechobee on Friday for a roundtable discussion with local community leaders at the Williamson Conference Center on the Okeechobee campus of Indian River State College.

“The state of Florida passed a constitutional amendment that we want to take the real estate transaction tax to go into a trust fund,” said Sen. Nelson, D-Fla. “That source of revenue is to go for buying up precious lands and conservation easements.

Senator Bill Nelson

“What has happened over the years is that money has been squirreled away, not used to the purpose intended by people who voted it in,” he said.

He said the funds should also be used for best management practices north of the lake, to clean the water before it goes into Lake Okeechobee.

“I want to see that money restored,” Sen. Nelson said.

He said conservation easements can help the environment while preserving Florida’s historic cattle ranching industry.

“I grew up on a ranch,” he said. He said he raised Santa Gertrudis cattle as a 4-H project.

“By my senior year in high school, I had a purebred herd of 23. I sold them for $10,000 — and back then, that was a lot of money — and that financed my education.

“This is the part of Florida that is my roots,” he said. “This is the part of Florida that I want to preserve.”

Sen. Nelson said conservation easements are a win for the ranchers, because they allow them to continue their ranching traditions for future generations rather than sell out to developers. It’s a win for the taxpayers because the best way to clean up the water is to have best conservation practices north of the lake.

“It’s a win all the way around,” he said.

The senator also said the federal government has committed to finish the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation project by 2022.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have spent $1.3 billion to shore up the dike,” said Sen. Nelson

He said the project is projected to cost $2 billion.

“The remaining $700 or so million was on the corps’ schedule to go all the way out to 2025 before it would be completed,” he said.

“What we wanted to do was to expand it where you are appropriating about $200 million a year and therefore be able to complete it in 2022 instead of 2025,” he said.

“To do that, two things had to happen,” he explained. “First was we had to get the Army Corps of Engineers to sign off that they could do it.”

Once the corps gave the green light, since this is a federal project, the second thing was to get it authorized, he continued.

In order to assure the funding is there, they needed to get it in the Water Resources Development Act bill (WRDA).

WRDA appropriations are not done every year. Sometimes there have been seven-year periods with no WRDA appropriations.

Sen. Nelson said there will be a 2018 WRDA appropriation.

“We’ve been able to work it out; we’re going to have a WRDA bill and we’re going to pass it between now and the end of the year,” he said.

“Senator Marco Rubio and I will make sure that it (dike rehabilitation funding) stays in the water bill,” he said.

Sen. Nelson said while the state’s contribution “is a bonus,” the federal government will make sure the dike is completed by 2022.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed an agreement Aug. 1 with the State of Florida to accept an additional $50 million of state funds to help with rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. The agreement, known as a Contributed Funds Memorandum of Agreement, was signed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander Col. Jason Kirk and Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein. A similar agreement had been signed earlier this year, bringing the total State of Florida contributions to advance Herbert Hoover Dike construction to $100 million.

Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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