The Florida Legislature begins their 2017 session on March 7th, but committees are already hard at work crafting bills they hope will be approved during the two-month session.
One of the top legislative priorities for coastal residents is water quality, specifically, a plan to dramatically reduce the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers when rainfall causes the lake water level to rise.
Whatever is in that water, and it’s hard to pinpoint its exact makeup, it’s deep brown color and high fertilizer levels wreak havoc on the fragile estuary that surrounds us on Fort Myers Beach. It lowers the salinity of the water and darkens it to the point that sea grasses die from lack of sunlight. A variety of sea life is dependent on a delicate salinity balance and they die off.
But wait! There’s more…
Once in the Gulf of Mexico, the high level of what some like to call “nutrients” and the rest of us “pollution” contributes to expanding and prolonging red tide blooms offshore.
Fish flee from the dark brown flow. Anglers and fishing guides must head miles off shore to find clear water and fish. Low salinity interferes with the fish nursery that is Estero Bay. Beach goers avoid any beach with dark brown water. When our beach businesses suffer, their employees suffer.
None of us are unaffected by the excess water releases from Lake Okeechobee. While we got through January without a repeat of the record rains and releases of January 2016, we know that was just dumb luck. As soon as summer rains arrive and the lake level rises the dirty water will be flowing our way again.
Months ago, Florida Senate President Joe Negron proposed a bill to fund a 60,000-acre reservoir south of the lake that would store and filter excess Lake O water. Florida Senator Rob Bradley sponsored SB-10 and it’s made it through the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee and still has an obstacle course of committees to navigate before we can hope it reaches a full Senate vote. Meanwhile there is no companion bill in the Florida House.
Proponents of this bill, which addresses only the southern storage component, face some steep challenges. The sugar industry, farmers and politicians from the area south of the lake have taken a stand against any southern reservoir, even though it is a primary component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) since 2000. Big Sugar’s public relations team has been working overtime convincing everyone that only millionaires on the coasts will benefit and poor inland farmers will suffer. The picture being painted is that we who depend on clean water for our economic livelihood are the idle rich who don’t care about hard-working farmers.
That is a lie.
They also seem to be working with our public employees at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the ones that our taxes pay. SFWMD has sent out a virtual blizzard of press releases objecting to, well, just about anything said at water quality conferences relating to the benefits of water flowing south into a reservoir. They want a northern reservoir or septic tanks removed or something else first. There’s no question that the southern reservoir alone will not fix the enormous problem that is Lake O water quality and releases. But it would be a huge step in the right direction. And it would work with all of the other partial solutions under discussion, including the other reservoirs & septic tank elimination.
Big Sugar Land
It helps to understand some history. In 2010 U.S. Sugar willingly signed an agreement to sell all its South Florida land to the State of Florida. In 2010 the state bought 26,800 acres. Then Rick Scott was elected. He opposed the deal. U.S. Sugar changed their minds and now don’t want to sell anything to the state. However the agreement is still valid and would allow the state to purchase 153,200 acres south of the lake by 2020. Big Sugar is playing chicken with the state. And they have a good chance of winning.
Governor Scott appoints all the members of the SFWMD board. He can fire them if they do something he is not pleased with and has. The voice of SFWMD is the voice of Scott. The voice of Scott is the voice of Big Sugar. Recently a review of state records by The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald showed that the sugar industry, led by U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals has donated $57.8 million to local and state political campaigns between 1994-2016. That buys a lot of no votes on bills like SB-10.
What does this mean?
Those of us who care about clean water have a very steep hill to climb. Some would say it’s impossible for citizens to go up against the governor, SFWMD and Big Sugar. But this is our community and our friends and neighbors who face a very real economic crisis if we can’t get our water issues fixed.
We elect people to represent us in the Florida Legislature. We should let them know what we want them to do about the SB-0010 Water Resources Bill.
Call their office. Don’t write or email – it’s too easy to ignore. And pay attention to what is happening with the bill as the Legislative session opens. It’s easy to track bills at www.flsenate.gov.
For contact numbers for our Florida representatives see below.
Florida Legislature Contact Info
Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto
Fort Myers Office
Representative Ray Rodrigues
Fort Myers Office
Representative Heather Fitzenhagen
Fort Myers Office