BRADENTON, Fla. — A Florida reservoir project to be financed partly with bonds could cost close to $2 billion, according to most alternatives under study, exceeding what state lawmakers envisioned.

The South Florida Water Management District is reviewing five options estimated to range between $1.42 billion and $1.95 billion to finance a water-storage project aimed at preventing toxic algae outbreaks along the state’s coasts that damage estuaries and prevent fresh water from reaching environmentally sensitive areas such as the Florida Everglades.

Martin County, Fla., algae bloom in 2016
Florida hopes a state-federal program to build a reservoir prevents algae outbreaks such as the one shown here in Martin County in June 2016. Martin County Board of County Commissioners

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, championed the project in Senate Bill 10, a funding measure signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May.

“What I hope to see from the district is a proposal that is workable, that we can make a reality as expeditiously as possible to decrease the need for harmful discharges to the estuaries,” Negron told the SFWMD in a Dec. 14 letter.

Three project options being considered by the district exceed state estimates. Florida lawmakers thought it would cost $1.6 billion when they passed SB 10, authorizing up to $800 million of revenue bonds to finance the state’s share.

The bill requires the other half of the funding to come from the federal government with no guarantee that will happen, although Negron said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to provide technical assistance to study the project.

The legislation authorizes financing the reservoir from the Florida Forever borrowing program using 20-year bonds secured by collections from a documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions, which have surged since the end of the 2008 recession.

Ben Watkins, director of the Division of Bond Finance, has said that documentary stamp tax revenue could support the reservoir financing program, though Scott and the Republican-led Legislature have opposed using debt for environmental programs since Scott became governor in 2011.

Some $931.5 million of Florida Forever bonds were outstanding as of June 30, 2017.

The reservoir would be built south of Lake Okeechobee, which is surrounded by a 143-mile earthen dike managed by the Corps.

When the lake rises too high and pressures the dike, the Corps releases algae-tainted water into canals and other waterways. From there it flows southeast and southwest, causing blue-green algae blooms especially during hot summer months that choke marine life and threaten human health.

During severe algae blooms in 2016, the governor issued a series of executive orders ordering state emergency managers to develop response and mitigation plans for outbreaks that affected Lee County on the west coast, and Martin and St. Lucie counties on the east coast.

The 2016 outbreak and others over the years prompted Negron, whose legislative district includes Martin and St. Lucie counties, to support SB 10, with the idea of using the reservoir to capture and filter bacteria-laden water from Lake Okeechobee.

Since the bill passed, the SFWMD has held a series of public meetings to plan the project, releasing cost estimates of the five options on Dec. 21.

The bill authorizes the district to purchase land for the reservoir, but prohibits the use of eminent domain, which will require the agency to find willing sellers.

The district will now continue reviewing the feasibility of each option, and a status report will be submitted to the Florida Legislature by Jan. 9 when the first day of session begins.

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