- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Top Florida Republicans have taken a big step toward making their plan of building a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee an easier-to-swallow proposal for its opponents.

A Senate budget committee on Wednesday approved drastic changes to the project, which seeks to divert toxic algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee after the harmful discharges threatened coastal tourism and marine wildlife in South Florida last summer.

Senate President Joe Negron has made this project a top priority during the legislative session. The adjustments to Senate Bill 10 were made after the plan got pushback from the sugar industry, which would have lost more farmland with the initial proposal. Even with these modifications, it remains unclear if the industry is fully on board. U.S. Sugar Corp. said in a statement the project overhaul was “significant progress.”

The revisions mean the project has scaled back in size from the 60,000 acres initially proposed. Although it remains unclear how big the reservoir will end up being, Negron says the system would be deepened by 14 feet.

The goal for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee - the second largest lake in the nation - would still be met despite reducing the amount of farmland needed for the reservoir. This would further the intent to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the harmful discharges from the lake.

Decreasing the size of the project has garnered Negron support from Democrats who worried about taking agricultural land out of production and as a consequence would put residents in impoverished area communities out a job.

The Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Everglades ecosystem, said the changes to the bill would have a “positive impact on the restoration” efforts.

Gov. Rick Scott has not taken a firm stand on the bill, even though last year he promised to push the Legislature to battle the massive algae bloom fouling Florida’s precious coastal waters.

The legislation has advanced to the Senate floor for consideration.

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