Southwest Florida leaders met with two Florida Congress officials at a Congressional briefing on the state of Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie waterways last week.
Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker, Beach Mayor Alan Mandel and Beach Chamber President Bud Nocera were among the local leaders to travel up to Washington D.C. to speak with Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fort Myers, and Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, for the "South Florida Fly-In and Briefing" on Thursday.
Many weeks of high flow regulatory freshwater releases discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are damaging the area's coastal habitats and water quality to the point where the action may negatively affect not only our ecology but our economy, tourism industry and possibly our health in a devastating way. The problem is cited as water management, and there is not enough storage space during the rainy season.
At the briefing, water quality and management officials spoke first before state and local officials had their chance. There was a request for federal funds for projects such as repairing the Herbert Hoover Dam. A bill has passed through a Florida Senate Select Committee with a voice vote and is now going before Congress for approval.
Kiker spoke at the briefing and called the water quality situation an "ongoing environmental calamity."
"The Caloosahatchee River and the estuary in Lee County is essential to the overall health of our beaches and to a great extent our economic viability," he said. "A clean and healthy environment is one of the most critical cogs of the economic engine that drives Lee County in its No. 1 industry, which is tourism."
Kiker then related visitors in direct relation to employment in Lee County. County officials were reported to having spent more than $350 million to obtain 28,000 acres in putting land into conservation.
"Statistics have shown that over 90 percent of the people that visit come for beaches and clean water," he said. "We live in an instant information age, and the image of black water along the beaches in Lee County has spread around the world in seconds. Unfortunately, that image stays with us for a long, long time. We're a very resilient community, but we need action now."
Mandel was impressed by the "bipartisan effort" between Republican and Democrat senators.
"Together, they have really gotten this issue in front of some very key members of not only the House but the Senate," he said. "From an economics standpoint, in just Lee County, we had $2.7 billion of tourist money in 2012. Twenty-two percent of that is from outside the United States. Those are new economic dollars coming into this country. To me, that is the reason and not just ecological reasons that Congress should vote on this."
Nocera stated the event received a "lot of traction" with 24 members of Congress, Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several members of the Florida legislature in attendance.
"The room was packed," he said. "I think the fact that it happened while the government was shut down gave it the ability to garner more attention and that is why more members of Congress attended."
Due to the government shutdown, members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were not present.
After federal speakers were done, Sen. Negron and Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen had a chance to speak before local county commissioners and other local officials spoke.
"The funding mechanism for the Water Resources Development Act passed out of the transportation and economic development committee on a voice vote, and today was a really good example of bipartisan support for it," said Nocera. "Sen. Nelson was trying to urge everybody to get this to a floor vote on the House."
Nocera has concerns that once the rainy season ends and Gulf waters become cleaner, the whole situation will be forgotten until next summer.
"We can't do that," he said. "We need to understand that this is a serious economic issue and real estate values issue for Fort Myers Beach," he said. "We can't let it get out of our minds. It will take many years until we get the long-term solutions implemented. I would like us (Southwest Floridians) to become as organized and as passionate as our friends on the east coast (of Florida.)"
The matter has received much media attention -especially within coastal communities- with forums, meetings, briefings and rallies.
At an open public forum at Pink Shell Resort recently, three members of the Florida Coastal and Oceans Coalition (Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resource Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel, Conservancy of Southwest Florida Natural Resources Policy Director Jennifer Hecker and FCOC coordinator Ray Judah) urged Southwest Floridians to act now and contact Gov. Rick Scott (Rick.Scott@myflorida.com) and other Florida elected leaders (go to www.stateofflorida.com to find list and email addresses) to ask for support on the following federal priorities: fund the 2013 Water Resources Development Act; support a contingency authorization and funding for Central Everglades Planning Project; and fund the bridging of Tamiami Trail through the Everglades.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and other top-ranking officials have visited Estero Island and listened to Beach business people about their concerns for the future.
"Every comment that you make is critically valuable to us. We will underscore everyone's testimony to set the stage for next season," said Benacquisto. "With your help, we want to make sure the message is right and what it should be."
Gov. Rick Scott announced a $90 million environmental project last month at Centennial Park in Fort Myers. Scott said the state would invest $30 million per year over three years to raise 2.6 miles of Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. The higher elevation will allow fresh water to be released south into the Everglades without the possibility of flooding the highway.
The project would happen through the Florida Department of Transportation, bringing the state's share of the $180 million cost for the 2.6 miles of bridging to the $90 million committed. Scott said other things are being done to protect the state's estuaries as well.
"The state is doing the right thing. They are teaming up with the private sector and farms and doing things on public lands to store water so we can reduce this flow from Lake Okeechobee," said Scott.
He pointed out that the federal government owes the State of Florida $1.6 billion in investments under a 50/50 cost sharing agreement. A lack of federal money has delayed repairs to the failing Herbert Hoover Dike System near Lake Okeechobee.
"They need to fix the dike, it's their job and their responsibility. It's the federal government's responsibility to fix the dike," said Scott.
Congressman Radel, who serves on the Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure, has said he is doing everything possible to secure federal funding for projects that protect water supplies.
"I will do everything I can to ensure I am fighting for the State of Florida and Southwest Florida to make sure we have a healthy environment, because at the end of the day, for us in Southwest Florida, a healthy environment means a healthy economy and jobs for all of us," said Radel.
Judah said Gov. Scott "embellished his recent statement" about alleviating the adverse impacts from the massive release of water from Lake Okeechobee on the estuaries on the east and west coast of Florida.
"Once completed, the entire CEPP program will actually pull approximately 210 acre feet off of Lake Okeechobee by directing that water to the south," said Judah. "The bulk of the water that will flow past the restored levee and the bridging under Tamiami Trail comes from the agricultural area (drainage from the sugar fields) itself. To put that in perspective, only 210 acre feet with the completion of the CEPP program comes from the lake. I've dubbed it the 10 percent solution. It will not address the problems that we are experiencing with the massive releases from Lake Okeechobee."
Judah has stated he will reiterate the importance of Plan 6 -the restoration of the historic flow-way in the Everglades Agricultural Area- in a smaller scale. This plan involves the purchasing of 153,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land and a state purchase option that expires in October for an overall price of $1.132 billion.
"'The portion of the option that expires is an agreed-upon price of $7,400 an acre," he said. "After October, the state can still buy the land but the price will dramatically increase, and the state will have to compete with other potential buyers."
For Plan 6 to work and restore flow-ways to the Everglades, more land must be obtained for storage, water treatment and conveyance, says Judah. Directly to the south of the southern area of Lake O, there are 20,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land between Miami Canal and North New River Canal and 30,000 acres of Florida Crystals land.
"The breakdown is what is only needed is 50,000 acres of privately owned land to make this work," said Judah. "If we would obtain the 20,000 acres from U.S. Sugars through the purchase option, then the remaining land of U.S. Sugar could be used in a land swap with Florida Crystals to be able to finalize the piece of the puzzle for land necessary to convey water to the south."
Meanwhile, Southwest Floridians have and are staging rallies to get the point across. The next one is scheduled at Crescent Beach Family Park at 110 Estero Blvd. on Saturday, Oct. 19, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Beach resident John Heim, lead man for the West Coast chapter of an Eco-advocacy group called "Floridians for Clean Water," took a bus trip up to Washington D.C. for the briefings with nearly 80 Florida east coast representatives. It was labeled as "The Truth Tour."
"We had over 400 activists fill the rooms," said Heim at the Fort Myers Beach Town Council meeting Monday.