Last week, Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resources Director Rae Ann Wessel – a local water expert who has been involved in Southwest Florida’s water fight for over 25 years – traveled to Washington D.C. to speak at ‘National Lagoon Day’ – an event hosted by Representatives Patrick Murphy and Curt Clawson to look at the effects of harmful algal blooms caused by the Lake Okeechobee water releases. When she got back to Lee County, Wessel also spoke at meetings with Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Bill Nelson where she urged them to take action immediately.
“The event in D.C. was a bipartisan effort to bring science in to highlight some of our established issues with water quality,” Wessel told us. “What was unique was the presence of federal agencies who were able to capture a lot of the issues we’re working on. There is a group called the ‘Interagency Working Group on Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control’ that is comprised of members of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NASA and NOAA. They each gave a little talk about things they are working on, after which people like myself from communities in Florida got to speak for a couple of minutes.”
Wessel told us that the Coast Guard group went first, and while they got pretty technical with their presentation, did talk about how they are working with the Army Corps of Engineers to manage Lake Okeechobee releases.
“The key piece to this is they need to find a place where they’ll do less harm,” she said. “The EPA went next, and they focused on drinking water and how the same microcystin toxin was found in Lake Erie several years ago. These are national health issues – what drives these blooms and what causes them to turn on.”
Rae Ann said her biggest concern with what the EPA was saying is that any authority concerning blooms will be delegated to the state of Florida.
“Our current administration’s track record isn’t so good at that, and they’ve made no efforts to control anything at the source,” she said. “The other EPA speaker talked about how to improve public notification. While I was encouraged to hear all the right things from them, I wonder how we’ll get them into play.”
Wessel said that both NASA and NOAA talked about how everything is connected.
“There needs to be this federal nexus – if you can reduce problems in one area, you can transfer those ideas to another,” she said. “This is why the feds should care – it’s not just our issue.”
Rae Ann said that when it was her turn to speak, she focused on science as our issues aren’t as visual as those on the east coast of Florida, where pictures of blue green algae clogging canals and marinas have made national news.
“I talked about the economic impacts from the collapse of the blue crab fisheries, how the oysters and sea grasses dying have resulted in many years of fish nurseries washed out to sea. I asked that they pass and fund another WRDA (Water Resources Development Act) – we’re supposed to get one every two years and the last one passed was in 2014, which was the first since 2007. Both Rubio and Nelson have said they would like to get another WRDA passed this year to authorize the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), and Rubio told me they are convening for two weeks in September to vote on it so we need to get behind this fast.”
One thing Rae Ann said she was frustrated by is that she didn’t leave Washington with any feeling of immediacy, a feeling that was exacerbated by her meetings in Lee County with Nelson and Rubio – both of whom visited our area during the last week for the same reason: to meet with local mayors, chambers of commerce, environmentalists and others to discuss our water problems and possible solutions.
“We need to start doing things at the same time,” she said. “I am sympathetic with Rubio’s concerns that asking for more money for other solutions – like sending water south – may disrupt his support for WRDA because people from other states may question why so much money is being spent on the Everglades, but I do think we can walk and chew gum at the same time on this.”
“Also, the argument that we are trying to destroy the livelihoods of the people south of the lake is sophomoric,” Wessel continued. “We aren’t trying to wipe out 700,000 acres and jobs and families – we only need about 50,000 or 60,000 to get a flow way south. Even if we have to pay someone in the short term to do something for emergency purposes…this year’s El Nino event was predicted to be even worse than it was and no one did anything. Storage north of the lake only helps a little.”
Greater Fort Myers Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President Bud Nocera also spoke at the meeting with Rubio, having been invited to do so by the senator’s staff.
“I spoke because I wanted them – as politicians – to understand the effect all of this is having on Fort Myers Beach,” Bud told us. “Because of all the media attention, we are getting painted with the same brush as the east coast of Florida and we don’t have all that blue green algae. Depending on the type of business, we are hearing reports of 20-40% less revenue than this time last year, and we don’t have nearly the amount of German visitors we normally do. The Chamber is handling anywhere from 15 to 30 calls per day from people who have already booked vacations here and who are scared to come.”
Rae Ann Wessel told us that one thing she found encouraging was Rubio’s insistence that fixing the dike for the sole purpose of raising levels in Lake Okeechobee would create even more problems.
“The dike needs to be fixed for safety reasons, but raising acceptable levels of water in the lake would destroy the marsh on the west side of the lake that does filter the water we get,” she said. “It would also destroy the habitat of some endangered species. The idea of sacrificing an entire species is stupid when there are other options.”
Shortly after Rubio’s visit, the South Florida Water Management District announced it was taking $2.6 million from its reserves to deal with South Florida’s algae emergency as declared by Governor Rick Scott. None of that money will go to our area, however – it is designated for storage projects and better management of stormwater runoff in the St. Lucie Estuary.
Keri Hendry Weeg