Let It Flow – South
Southwest Florida clean water champions for years have trumpeted a common theme – to curb polluted discharges and toxic algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and Saint Lucie River estuaries, restore the water’s traditional flow south through a reservoir to the Everglades historic River of Grass. This seemed like a pipe dream until recently, however, when State Senator Joe Negron, who represents the Saint Lucie River’s Treasure Coast, became Florida Senate President. In rapid time, especially for a branch of government, that project seems on its way to approval.
The State Senate and House agreed to Senate Bill 10 to construct the southern reservoir that the Senate passed 36 to 3 on April 12, though many hurdles remain. The southern reservoir, that is expected to hold roughly 78 billion gallons of excess lake water, with the potential to grow to 117 billion gallons, seems to be part of a budget agreement between Negron and the House Speaker, Richard Corcoran of Pasco County, north of Tampa. The House, however, has yet to take up the matter and must pass it to enact the plan prior to the end of this legislative session on Friday, May 5.
To ease opposition from the sugar industry, Negron scaled back his original plan, with a deeper reservoir now to be built on state-owned property, rather than buying roughly 60,000 acres from the sugar companies that no longer want to sell these lands. The prospective bill calls for $64 million the first year, with bonding to fund the balance in later years. If the legislature passes the initiative, construction can begin in roughly 2021, with cooperation from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the US Army Corp of Engineers, as well as the United States Congress approving its half of the estimated $1.5-billion price.
To Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resources Policy Director of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), she is cautious about any premature celebrating: “In the last week of the session, the Lake Okeechobee reservoir proposal could change three or four times, and go in any of 180 degrees, and that is just the way it is, as this is the bill both the House and Senate are using for leverage as they try to agree on the State budget. It’s impossible to predict the outcome because it is still subject to deals that can go in any direction. It is important to understand this is a fast moving time of the session and that this bill has an unusual kind of trajectory, with numerous pressure points, so it is hard to say.”
As such, Wessel emphasizes that this is a crucial time to alert your area legislators of your support. “Not everyone can travel to Tallahassee, but everyone these days has a cell phone! Over the next week, enter WATER 52886, then go to text messaging. When it opens to the new message, put in 52886 and you will receive a return link. Click on that and it will bring up the message that you customize. Put in your zip code and it will send to you links to your legislators through Blogs or Facebook, to encourage their continued support and keep the issue relevant. This is the one thing people can do this late in the game to make a difference, as the final State budget remains a moving target, so it is crucial that our representatives hear from their constituents that this is a critical piece to restoring our water and our coasts and our Everglades.”
The overarching Everglades goal is to eliminate the harmful discharges into the two northern estuaries where it does too much harm, by redirecting water into the Everglades and Florida Bay that do not get enough. Prior to manmade reengineering, 99% of the outflow went to the Everglades; now 70% of unwanted water goes to the Caloosahatchee River in wet conditions, while starving the Everglades and Florida Bay of water, and then it cuts it off in drier seasons like this year. “That is our two-pronged interest – to help protect the estuaries and restore the original flows to the Everglades and Florida Bay that are now distraught ecosystems,” explained Wessel. “You can’t solve the issue if you only treat half the problem.”
“It’s A Start”
With the acreage already under State control, Wessel estimates there are at least 240,000 acre-feet of storage, with an acre-foot being one acre of land flooded with one foot of water. While this is below the recommended 360,000 acre-feet for the southern reservoir, “this really does not mean we need an additional 30% of storage. Water will continually go out, then will refill it – it’s a start; let say that!”
SCCF recently implemented a legislative update page on their website for environmental issues, to allow people to better monitor legislation like Senate Bill 10, at www.sccf.org. “One of the reasons why it is difficult to predict the final bill is because Senator Negron already made several compromises,” she offered. “This is still a valuable negotiating tool for the House to employ in its budget discussions. Senator Negron had to pull back on buying 60,000 acres from US Sugar, so the southern reservoir will now be smaller and deeper than originally envisioned, and if it goes through, the State will immediately release US Sugar from its then-willing seller provision it agreed to in 2010 that is set to expire in October 2020. Other trades are still a possibility, as it is impossible to keep your finger on the pulse of it unless you are up there, and even then it’s tough!”
Someone who was recently in Tallahassee, keeping her finger on the pulse up there, was Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, who made her first legislative junket from Tuesday, April 11, to Thursday, April 13, including being there when the historic Senate Bill 10 received passage on April 12. “I attended with the Southwest Florida Chamber Alliance and the Royal Palm Coast Realtors Association,” said Liszak, “and our trip coincided with the Captains for Clean Water’s Day that brought in from 300 to 500 charter fishing captains, so it looked like Southwest Florida surrounded The Capital! It was a really great group, and I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about our process and to represent Fort Myers Beach.”
Making A Difference
Liszak explained that while each group pushed its own agenda, “obviously we all talked about water quality and the need for our legislators to vote for the southern Everglades reservoir, and our trip mattered – it mattered! We met with State Senators Kathleen Passidomo and Lizbeth Benacquisto, and Representatives Matt Caldwell, Byron Donalds, Dane Eagle, Heather Fitzenhagen, Ray Rodrigues and Bob Rommel, as well as the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Board of Realtors, and we were the only group who made traction pushing Florida Flood Insurance, getting a meeting with the Senate staff who are spearheading that effort, and they invited us to be a part of that movement to push that crucial component forward.”
She found our area representatives “incredibly gracious, and interested in everything we said, and I felt very free and open to talking about anything that concerned me. Our congressional delegation regarding Lake Okeechobee was almost unanimous in their opinion that it is clear that the time is now to do something about the lake, as this has been going on for too long. Remember by the time we met them that Senators Benacquisto and Passidomo already made up their minds to support Senate Bill 10, so that made the conversation with them easy, but some of our House members are still up in the air, so I believe our influence and opinions will help sway them. They seem to really understand our issues here, and how crucial is clean water.”
To Jacki, networking face-to-face with our elected representatives for the first time was “amazing and so cool! To see our legislative system, in the process of doing what it is supposed to do, is I think something everybody should do at least once in their life, as it is not easy! We always think in lay terms, ‘Why can’t they just do that?’ but once you are there you see how the process is so time-consuming and difficult, how something has to move through the committees, and sometimes be voted on a number of times before it can become a law or reality. One thing I learned for sure is our representatives do not just sit around eating bonbons; they work their behinds off! I thought it a great education, and am proud we represented our beach and neighbors and friends and businesses, as I never thought I would get to do something like this. It may be a 7-hour drive, but it was worth every minute, as we made a difference!”