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POLLUTION SOLUTION: Governor announces project regarding Lake O

September 4, 2013
By MCKENZIE CASSIDY ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Gov. Rick Scott announced a $90 million environmental project last week to ease the flow of freshwater releases into Southwest Florida.

Speaking in 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 will be 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.

Article Photos

Governor Rick Scott met with local officials last week at Centennial Park in Fort Myers. From left to right, Scott toured the river with Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson Jr. and State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Lee County).

"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 also 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.

Fact Box

Officials applaud environmental project:

- Eric Eikenberg, Everglades Foundation: "In the history of Everglades restoration, Governor Rick Scott stands out as an environmental leader with his announcement today of his plan to spend $90 million over three years to complete the next phase of critical bridging of Tamiami Trail. This announcement, combined with Governor Scott's $880 million Water Quality Plan, means the governor has successfully tackled two of the most difficult and contentious issues in the protection and restoration of America's Everglades. For those living near the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, this bridging of Tamiami Trail is an important project that will allow water to move south from Lake Okeechobee, easing the burden on those rivers. Governor Scott deserves enormous praise for his willingness to listen, to act, and to make America's Everglades the drinking water for 7 million Floridians one of the top priorities of his administration."

- Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior: "We welcome Governor Scott's partnership with the Department in the construction of a 2.6 mile bridge on the Tamiami Trail, a critical next step in our collective efforts to restore the Everglades. Bridging the Tamiami Trail is a key component of Everglades restoration plans to increase water flow through the central Everglades into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. This will both help restore wildlife habitat in the Everglades and improve flood conditions in the Water Conservation Areas north of the Trail."

- Mayor Randy Henderson, City of Fort Myers: "Governor Scott's focus on addressing the Lake O releases is timely and appropriate. We support his assertive and immediate attention to this long overdue initiative. The River Basin infrastructure project represents modern day best practices for addressing water management as prudently as possible while offering opportunity for upland infill. Fort Myers is 127 years old and fast becoming an example of good water and energy policy."

- Mayor Alan Mandel, Town of Fort Myers Beach: "It's one of a number of steps that can be taken for solutions to our water quality problem. It's great that its been done. It will help in the near term. Obviously, more needs to be done, but this is a start and groups involved should be congratulated for that. As I mentioned to the governor, when the Gulf does reach equilibrium, we are going to need a marketing effort to counter what tourists have been reporting. Visit Florida has a working fund to help to promote our tourism business again."

- Mayor Kevin Ruane, City of Sanibel: "Governor Scott's response to this economic and environmental crisis has been swift. We should not squander this opportunity to all work together: east coast & west coast; inland agricultural interests & beaches communities, Federal, State & local officials, environmentalist & business owners, to move plans long on the drawing boards into reality."

- Cecil Pendergrass, Chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners: "Lee County's economy depends heavily on the quality of our waterways. We have worked together with our local and state delegation to address this issue and sincerely appreciate Governor Scott's leadership. His efforts to restore water quality to Southwest Florida will have a direct affect on over 50,000 people in our county employed in tourism related industries."

- Commissioner John Manning, Lee County Board of Commissioners: "I want to thank Governor Scott for touring our water basin and seeing firsthand the severe effects of the fresh water releases. Lee County's water quality is so vital to our quality of life and local economy. I am grateful that Governor Scott is here listening and working towards solutions."

- Commissioner Tammy Hall, Lee County Board of Commissioners: "The ecological well-being of our waters in Lee County is essential to our economy. Governor Scott and his team, through their action and leadership, are demonstrating that solutions to our problems can be reached. We pledge to work with the Governor, and other stakeholders, to continue to implement solutions to our regional water resource issues."

- Ernie Barnett, Interim Executive Director of the South Florida Water Management District: "The Tamiami Trail is one of the most significant barriers to water flowing south into Everglades National Park. While a recently completed one-mile bridge across the trail will help water flow, an additional 2.6 miles of bridging is critical to increasing the flow of vital clean water from Lake Okeechobee through the District's Stormwater Treatment Areas and ultimately into Everglades National Park."

- Hans Wilson, President of Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association said, "Our marine industry and boating community appreciates Governor Scott's attention to our problems stemming from the high volume releases from Lake Okeechobee. Clean water is essential to the survival of our estuaries. Without healthy sea grasses, thriving fish populations, sustainable food sources for manatees, dolphins, and our variety of birds, there is little left to attract our boaters to the waters of Lee County. This has a devastating effect on our marine economy. We pledge our support of the Governor in his quest to solving this issue."

Congressman Trey Radel, R-Southwest Florida, who serves on the Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure, 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.

Although the raising of Tamiami Trail is a step forward in sending more water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, local environmental officials agree it's a minimal effort.

"Moving more water south is part of the solution and while it's important, the amount of water that will be moved is a drop in the bucket," said Jennifer Hecker, manager of Natural Resource Policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Hecker said Scott has only provided half of the Everglades restoration funds offered by his previous Republican counterparts.

She said approximately 210,000 acre/feet of water would be sent south but nearly one million acres needs to be moved to see a difference locally, leaving another 800,000 acre/feet of water.

The C-43 Reservoir Project would have a more a significant impact on Southwest Florida, by diverting an additional 200,000 acres, but the federal government has yet to authorize the funding to begin construction. Local environmental officials are hoping the U.S. House authorizes the project by Sept. 16.

Even though C-43 would stagger the freshwater releases into this region, Hecker said current plans for the reservoir have it only storing the water and not treating, meaning an algae bloom could develop in the stagnant water.

Alexis Meyer, local organizer for The Sierra Club, described the highway project as a first step.

"It's a good first step, but many other things need to be done," she said. "It's impacting businesses and our lifestyles. Tourism is our lifeblood in Florida."

She said there needs to be more regulation put on the companies who cause polluted waters, regulation on water quality, and getting the state to purchase the 180,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area before the option expires in October.

Judah speaks at Coastal Estuaries in Peril event

Poor water quality is not only a danger for marine life, but the Southwest Florida economy as well.

That was the message delivered to the island communities Monday, Aug. 26, at the Coastal Estuaries in Peril panel at Tween' Waters Inn on Captiva Island. Ray Judah, former Lee County commissioner and current coordinator for the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, moderated the panel to inform the public.

"There is a lot of deception and misinformation, and you're going to get the truth tonight," said Judah Monday night. "So, when you speak to your elected officials you're going to know what you're talking about."

The problem of polluted water releases is complex and nuanced, and the solution isn't as simple as diverting more water to the east coast or making improvements to failing treatment systems. The good news was that panelists presented a number of short- and long-term options to combat the problem.

Greg Rawl, vice-chairman of the Southwest Watershed Council, said this July was one of the wettest seasons on record and, as a result, more water was released from Lake Okeechobee. Daily flows varied throughout the summer, but last Friday they broke 15,000 cubic feet per second.

Not unlike the last wet season in 2005, released water crossed 11,000 acres of lakes and marshes to the 800,000-acre Caloosahatchee River Basin, carrying nitrogen and phosphorous in suspended solids that darkened the water. The result was algae blooms eating nutrients and oxygen, and killing off aquatic life, officials said.

Islanders had been rejoicing the end of the longest red tide period on record, from September to April, but now their concern is water quality. With recent heavy discharges, Rawl said Southwest Florida can expect other algae blooms in the near future. The east coast of Florida, on the other hand, has the advantage of the Gulf Stream, which filters discharges into the ocean.

There are so many nutrient deposits in Lake Okeechobee, said Rawl, that if releases suddenly stopped it would take an estimated 500 years to clear out. And just because a body of polluted water dries up, doesn't mean the pollutants aren't still lurking under the soil.

Jennifer Hecker, manager of Natural Resource Policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the algae are killing marine life. Since last January, the conservancy has documented more than 300 manatee deaths. Humans are also developing respiratory problems and cases of skin rashes have been reported. Scientists are also linking chronic exposure to these pollutants with nervous disorders, she said.

Rae Ann Wessel, director of Natural Resource Policy at the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, said the system of dikes and treatment areas across the state pose a conundrum because they either release too much water or not enough.

"We find it nearly impossible to find that middle ground," she said.

Historically, water from the lake had traveled south into the Everglades before merging with the Gulf of Mexico, but it was unnaturally rerouted east to St. Lucie and west to the Caloosahatchee. Local environmental officials are now asking the federal government to fast track the Central Everglades Planning Project, which would divert water back south and decrease the level of pollutants in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

The diversion of water east and west accommodated the 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area, a majority of which is used by U.S. Sugar. They are now asking that the EAA be reused for fresh water releases under one of two options: Governor Rick Scott declaring a State of Emergency and flooding the EAA agricultural fields, which are insured, or purchase U.S. Sugar-land through a three-year option that expires this October.

Although releases from Lake Okeechobee carry pollutants into Southwest Florida, local water supplies pose a threat as well. Our water shed needs 450,000 acres of storage and current projects only provide 250,000 acres. Completion of the C-43 Reservoir, outside of Alva, would provide additional storage space, but it's just one piece of the puzzle, said Wessel.

Hecker said one of the reasons the state is in this predicament is the lack of measurable and enforceable water quality standards. This includes run-off from major agricultural companies and residential areas.

"Agricultural run-off is a source of nutrient pollution, but also the fertilizer we put on our lawns," said Hecker.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the State of Florida to develop water quality standards in 1998 but they were never finalized. The EPA later stepped in, but current water standards exempt 85 percent of Florida's waters. They don't include intermittent rivers, streams, canals, tidal waters, and others.

Under the current system, taxpayers are responsible for all of the costs of stopping polluted water, said Hecker, rather than the companies that dumped them in the first place. In 1996 a "polluters pay" constitutional amendment was approved by voters, but the Florida Legislature hasn't imposed it, she said.

And what are the costs of polluted water? According to the panelists, 90 percent of the Southwest Florida economy is connected to local water. Besides tourists coming to the beach, tarpon fishing generates $108.6 million, artificial reefs generate $104.2 million, and Lee County has the second highest number of issued saltwater fishing licenses.

Jonathan Tongya, president of the Sanibel-Captiva Kiwanis Club, organized the Save Our Bay Rally near the Sanibel bridge on Saturday, Aug. 24, and said 500 people attended. Many of those protestors also attended The Sugarland Rally in Clewiston on Sunday, Sept. 1, from noon to 3 p.m.



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