Could it be possible? Are we dreaming? Or is the Florida Legislature actually, maybe, possibly going to finally take a significant step toward solving our water quality problems caused by Lake Okeechobee discharges?
There’s a week left in the Legislature’s 60-day session and anything can happen, as discussed in our article this week, “Let It Flow – South.” While we are optimistic that both houses will approve SB 10 creating a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, and Governor Scott will sign it, nothing is a sure thing but there’s reason to hope that we have finally been heard.
There has been a constant stream of Southwest Florida residents, elected officials, business owners and visitors bringing the message that SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE ABOUT LAKE O DISCHARGES to our federal and state elected officials for over three years. We’ve explained that water quality is crucial to our tourist economy; that our Gulf and estuary waters have been fouled, causing serious harm to wildlife; that tourists will not come back to an area with brown, smelly water.
The most recent effort began in 2013 when both the east and west coasts of South Florida experienced a ‘Lost Summer’ due to high discharges, algae growth and horrible water quality. As soon as the water stopped flowing though, the decision makers forgot about the problem. Or maybe they just listened more closely to those Big Sugar folks who fund their campaigns.
Then came January 2016, when a record-breaking couple months of rainfall during our “dry” season, created an nightmare of dark brown water right smack in the middle of tourist season. Bullseye! If you were looking to damage our tourist economy, you couldn’t choose a better target than our water quality in season.
Flush Heard Round the World
2016 seems to be the turning point. While earlier rainy season discharges fouled our water during the summer, it mostly affected those of us who live here full time. But the 2016 discharge situation was the Lake O flush heard round the world. Lake O’s polluted water created a toxic algae mess on the St. Lucie River, turned both it and the Caloosahatchee River brown, killing off seagrasses and all the sea life that need that grass. Visitors turned to us residents and asked, “How can they do this?” quickly followed by, “I’m heading somewhere else until you fix this problem.” And many of them have.
It was heard round the world too, as visitors both here and abroad changed vacation plans as they heard about our water issues. We can explain until we’re blue in the face that our water only looks horrible when the Lake O flush is occurring, otherwise it’s beautiful. Doesn’t make much difference. People don’t want to gamble with their precious vacation time and money. The statistics flowing in now for this season are showing the results of last year’s flush and it isn’t pretty.
I suspect that state legislators are finally feeling the anger that we’ve all felt for years. Something has sure changed because this year there has been serious conversation about building a reservoir south of Lake O, something that has been part of the Central Everglades Restoration Plan since 2000, when the 35-year program to clean up and restore the Everglades actually had the support of Everglades farmers, something SB 10 has not enjoyed.
The truly amazing thing is that while the political donors of Big Sugar remain vehemently opposed to any kind of south reservoir, the legislature has still moved it forward. That is something that has not been accomplished before and when you think about it, it’s pretty amazing. Money talks and Big Sugar has been throwing a whole lot of it at our elected reps for a lot of years, yet this year, our reps listened to their constituents. Sure they made changes to SB 10 to make sure no sugar farmer was “forced” to sell the land that they agreed to sell to the state several years ago, but they still are moving the reservoir forward, although it will handle only about 60% of what the original plan would have.
Did it take a truly horrible 2016 season to push this issue over the line? Dare we hope that we’ve turned a corner and can hope for some relief? We hope so.
What we CAN do in this last week of the legislative session is contact our Florida House representatives. The Senate has already passed SB-10; the House has not, as of press time. And anything can happen in Tallahassee the last week of session.
Call your rep and tell them to support SB 10 for the economic health of all of South Florida and improved water quality for our sea life and us. Here are some contact numbers:
Representative Ray Rodrigues
Fort Myers Office
Representative Heather Fitzenhagen
Fort Myers Office