Log in Subscribe

Who put $400 million into Florida budget for new reservoir? No one will say


Don’t you love a good mystery? I sure do. From “Perry Mason” to “Poker Face,” if it’s a whodunnit, I’m hooked.

So when I heard about the Mystery of the $400 Million, I couldn’t resist trying to sort through the clues about how it all happened.

The mystery isn’t where the money would go.

In the 2024-25 state budget now awaiting the governor’s signature, the Legislature told the St. Johns River Water Management District to use that $400 million to buy land for the proposed 7,500-acre Grove Land Reservoir and Storm Water Treatment Area project in Okeechobee and Indian River counties, and then design and build it all.

No, the mystery is who wanted it.

The most obvious suspect, the St. Johns River Water Management District, didn’t ask for all those millions.

Why would they? The reservoir’s not even close to ready to start construction. No state agency has even approved a permit for the privately owned Grove Land project.

In fact, in their most recent comments on the proposal, the state permitting folks wrote that “as currently proposed, a beneficial use could not be verified.”

So where did that decision to hand over so much money come from?

“I don’t know,” Lisa Rinaman of the Jacksonville-based environmental group St. Johns Riverkeeper told me. “It was really shocking to us, the way it happened at the end of session. It’s mind-boggling, just the sheer magnitude of the appropriation.”

The Legislature offered no bills or resolutions about Grove Land before stuffing this wad of taxpayer cash into the budget like a burglar cramming loot into a bag.

There was no discussion of it in pre-session delegation meetings that the public could attend, nor in the weeks of open committee meetings prior to the final rounds of budget bargaining. Only then did it emerge, like a snake slithering out from under a rock.

Even a politically savvy adviser to the folks who have been pushing for this project, former Florida Park Service director Eric Draper, told me he had no idea this budget bonanza was in the works.

Draper is one of several environmental advocates who support the reservoir, while Rinaman is not. Draper believes that it could help with the Indian River Lagoon’s terrible pollution problems. Rinaman is worried it will simply transfer that pollution to the St. Johns.

“If Grove Land moves forward as currently designed,” she told me, “it will increase phosphorous loads in the Upper St. Johns twenty-fold.”

She pointed out that this is not the first time this shift-the-burden move has happened.

“This is just another attempt by the Legislature to solve South Florida’s problems by dumping them on North Florida,” she said.

Turning green

The St. Johns is the longest river in Florida and one of only three in the nation that flows north. It has borne many names over the years.

The Native Americans called it “Welaka,” meaning river of lakes. The French, who built Fort Caroline on its banks almost 50 years before the settlement in Jamestown, referred to it as “Riviere de Mai,” because they settled there on May 1. The Spanish, who wiped out the French, called the river “Rio de San Juan” after a mission near its mouth named San Juan del Puerto. Then the English took over and anglicized “San Juan” as “St. Johns,” which stuck.

Lately, the most accurate name has been “Don’t Even Think About Swimming Here.”

I know you’ll be shocked to hear that this river, much like all the other waterways under the purview of our Florida Department of Environmental Whoopsie-Daisy — er, excuse me, I mean “Protection” — has some pretty serious contaminant challenges.

“Pollution — especially in the tributaries — threatens human health, the economy, and the ecosystems that support plants, animals, and recreation,” noted the most recent “State of the River” report on the lower St. Johns. “Run-off from roads, development, failing septic tanks, past industrial activities, and agriculture pollutes” the river.

What makes this situation worse, in 2007 the Legislature banned farmers near Lake Okeechobee, the Kissimmee River, and the Everglades from accepting the nearly 100,000 tons of South Florida’s sewage sludge that they’d been using to fertilize crops. Since that ban, the South Florida sewer systems have been trucking that stinky slop north so they can dump it on farms in the watershed of the St. Johns.

As a result, parts of the St. Johns keep turning green, and not because it’s perpetually St. Patrick’s Day, me boy-o. State officials have issued warnings about toxic blue-green algae blooms in the river in 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2023.

This is why the idea of funneling in even MORE pollution to fuel those blooms is such a horrific thought for anyone like Rinaman who cares about the St. Johns. It’s a slow death by poison and you don’t have to be Sam Spade or Miss Marple to spot the murderer. It’s us.

But there’s more than one victim here, so let’s take a look at what’s killing the Indian River Lagoon.

Death of a lagoon

Once regarded as North America’s most productive estuary, the Indian River Lagoon had 79,000 acres of seagrass beds that helped it achieve that thriving reputation.

Over the past decade, it’s lost an estimated 75% of that seagrass. Now the lagoon’s on life support.

Who left it knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door? No need to call in Columbo or Kojak. There’s little mystery here.

Like other estuaries all over the state, it was done in by leaking septic tanks and sewer lines, as well as clueless property owners putting too much fertilizer on their lawns. Toxic algae blooms wiped out the seagrass beds and a couple thousand manatees starved to death.

One of the lagoon’s problems, Draper told me, is that it’s been deluged with polluted water that it wasn’t supposed to get. That water historically went to the St. Johns but had been diverted by the construction of the Florida Turnpike and drainage canals.

The Grove Land project would fix that error of history, he said. If designed properly, the stormwater treatment areas to be built around the reservoir could then clean up the pollution before it gets into another waterway, he said.

As the name implies, the Grove Land property has been used for citrus production for decades. But the disease of citrus greening put an end to that, according to Ron Edwards, CEO of property owner Evans Properties of Vero Beach as well as a long-time board member of The Nature Conservancy.

The company is now looking for other things to do with the 40,000 acres it controls across the state.

“Florida has a big water problem and we may be located in some of the right places to solve some of those issues,” Edwards told Florida Trend in 2018.

The idea of converting some of that land into a reservoir has been around since something called the Central Florida Water Initiative. And folks, here’s where it gets interesting.

Overbooking the aquifer

The Central Florida Water Initiative, a cooperative effort involving three of Florida’s five water districts, grew out of a colossal bureaucratic screwup. Here’s how Draper explained it:

“Basically, the three water management districts were handing out water use permits as if they were the ONLY ones handing out water use permits.”

You can probably guess what happened. Because they weren’t considering cumulative impacts, they overbooked the aquifer. Waaaaay too many people received permits, exceeding the amount of water that’s actually available.

The prospect of new suburbs with dry faucets and sputtering lawn sprinklers was not one anyone wanted to contemplate. Even worse, from the developers’ point of view, was to be told they couldn’t keep building because there was no water anymore.

In 2015, the Legislature created the controversial initiative as a regional water-supply planning effort to straighten it all out. This includes coming up with new sources of water other than pumping it out of the dwindling supply underground.

Hence the legislative interest in building a 5,000-acre reservoir on the Grove Land property: It boosts the water supply so fast-growing Central Florida can continue growing.

And I do mean fast. Central Florida is booming like a Fourth of July party at the fireworks factory. It’s to the point now where even preserved land is being targeted for new roads and other developer-friendly uses.

“While this project is being considered in the budget, it was a worthy investment to plan for water needs decades from now,” Andres Malave, spokesman for House Speaker Paul Renner, told me via email.

During budget negotiations, the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations subcommittee pitched the idea of spending $200 million on “surface water storage and treatment,” Malave said.

The Senate countered with a line item for “Grove Land Reservoir and Storm Water Treatment Area Project” for $400 million. That counteroffer had the backing of outgoing Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, according to Senate spokeswoman, Katherine Betta.

“The president (a land use and real estate attorney) reviewed an appraisal and supported the Senate offering the remaining $200 million,” Betta told me.

But why do this without any state agency asking for the money? Because, she said, the leaders “saw a need and appropriated funds to address that need.”

Still, I couldn’t get an answer from Betta or Malave for my main question: Who first proposed spending so much taxpayer money on a project that has yet to prove it won’t harm the St. Johns?

So far, no one’s claiming credit.

But maybe that silence tells us what we need to know.

The real mystery

I’m not saying my children were ever anything but perfect little angels, but I learned early on that a good rule of parenting is, “When the kids are quiet, that’s when you should check on them. They’re most likely up to something.”

The same holds true for politicians. If they’re doing something quietly, it’s not because they’re so darn modest. It’s because they’re up to something.

The fact that no one is jumping up and down to claim credit for steering this moolah into the budget tells me the intentions behind it were less than honorable.

By that I mean this elected official doesn’t give a hoot about pollution. What’s important to him or her (and important campaign contributors) is increasing the water supply so developers can keep on developing.

Now, maybe the Grove Land reservoir is a worthy project. Maybe its stormwater treatment areas will be designed to capture every single smidgen of pollution before it flows into the St. Johns. And maybe I’ll hit the Powerball jackpot.

But the secrecy bothers me, as does the source of the $400 million.

If it’s such a good project, then it should be able to withstand public scrutiny instead of being smuggled in like contraband. And it seems to me that the current taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay the full price of a project that primarily benefits new growth.

Last year Gov. Ron “I’ll Kiss Trump’s Posterior If It Makes Him Stop Mocking Me” DeSantis quietly vetoed a far smaller amount — $6 million — for this project. He’s usually in favor of whatever benefits developers, but maybe he’ll veto this $400 million too.

If he does, then it would give legislators a chance to do this the right way, out in the open where everyone can see what’s happening.

Then maybe some smart person will suggest they impose impact fees on new development to pay for at least half the cost. That way, the taxpayers from all over the state don’t have to bear the entire burden for Central Florida.

Why didn’t they do it this way in the first place? That, my friends, is the real mystery.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


1 comment on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.

  • Cat L

    Overall, the taxpayers of Florida are paying for overdevelopment that is destroying their own communities. Always check on the politicians when they're quiet, but when they make a big stinky noise about a subject, they're up to something else as well. Especially if the subject is particularly divisive, then they are hiding activities.

    Sunday, May 5 Report this