TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Wilton Simpson said he wasn’t sold on a $1.6 billion reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee when he voted in 2017 for the project, which was a priority of then-President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

And with the coronavirus pandemic punching a $3 billion to $4 billion hole in the state budget for next fiscal year, Simpson said he thinks the man-made lagoon is a “mistake.”

Appearing Tuesday at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s online Transportation, Growth & Infrastructure Solution Summit, Simpson said he believes the state “probably should stop building” the reservoir, which is meant to help redirect water south from Lake Okeechobee. Negron pushed the project, at least in part, because water discharged from the lake into nearby waterways was causing nasty algae problems.

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Simpson, a Trilby Republican who became president last month, said the state’s approach to improving water quality in South Florida should be through deep injection wells on the north side of Lake Okeechobee. 

“We need to take that nutrient out of that water right there, and before it gets to the lake,” Simpson said. “We need to store it. And then we can use it during drought times.”

Simpson said the approach would involve capturing “that water before it comes into Lake Okeechobee and you put it into the aquifer.” 

“What that then allows us in times of drought, first of all, it doesn't allow it to go into the lake to have to be discharged. So, that's a positive,” Simpson said. “And then number two, it allows you during drought times to be able to pull that water back out of the aquifer and use it to, we can't say drought-proof, but certainly they can go a long way towards having a water storage process in place for the southern end of the state. So, I think this year, we will spend a lot of time talking about the northern Everglades restoration. And obviously, that northern Everglades comes all the way up to Orlando.”

The Negron-backed bill, signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott in May 2017, allows Florida to issue up to $800 million in bonds for the reservoir.

The bill capped annual state funding for the project at $64 million and placed the reservoir on state-owned land rather than private farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Meanwhile, Simpson said efforts to clean state waters also will require an increased focus on removing septic tanks, and he suggested increasing funding for the state’s natural springs.

Florida law requires state lawmakers to budget at least $50 million a year for springs restoration, an amount legislators have hit the past several years.