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Editorial 690

Missy Layfield - Editor

Red Tape Could Lead to More Brown Water

The alphabet soup of state and federal entities that must be involved in any water decision always results in miles of red tape that must be untangled in order for any true progress to be made. Each entity is devoted to its red tape and absolutely sure that every last bit of it is necessary.

In mid April those concerned about environmental and economic damage created by massive Lake Okeechobee water releases last summer cheered when the South Florida Water Management District committed to paying its half of the bill for the Central Everglades Planning Project. The CEPP is a bundle of water projects aimed at the core of the ecosystem that includes 16 counties from Orlando all the way to Florida Bay. CEPP projects would clean polluted water, then move some of it south to the Everglades rather than flushing it all down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers and into critical estuaries.

Then this Tuesday, those cheers turned to jeers as the Army Corps of Engineers dropped the ball that the SFWMD had passed to them, blaming red tape. The Corps’ Civil Works Review Board opted to postpone their review, supposedly because the language in the SFWMD resolution differed from the Corps draft. That, my friends, is red tape.

Nobody is talking about what those differences are, but apparently they are enough to throw a monkey wrench into CEPP progress. The Corps claims there are 8,000 pages to review. Doesn’t the Corps have a close working relationship with SFWMD? Is this truly the first time they’ve seen those 8,000 pages? They also claim that this byzantine process is required to protect federal money spent on these projects. If that is the case, the Corps is guilty of an abysmal public education failure because some pretty high-level governmental types, who should well know about the process, are unhappy with the delay also.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Governor Rick Scott and eight members of Congress have contacted the Corps urging it to approve the plan now.

The urgency is due to a Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA) appropriations bill authorizing funds for water projects that is before Congress right now. The last time Congress passed funding for WRDA projects was in 2007.

The Corps hopes to finish its review of CEPP by June, then offer a 30-day public comment period before it goes back for final approval and then finally to Congress. At which point the WRDA appropriation bill will be history without funding for CEPP.

The Army Corps’ lack of urgency is frustrating for all who have worked so hard to prepare these projects and move them along to funding. For the Corps to drop the ball now comes across as a reminder to the rest of us as to who is really in charge of our water quality. And it’s not us. The overwhelming impression the Corps gives is that they are in charge and we can’t possibly understand how complex their job is. Maybe it’s their military foundation. Officers don’t have to explain anything to those under their command. They issue orders and expect them to be accepted and obeyed. Except we aren’t in the military, we’re citizens whose livelihoods are directly affected by those decisions. We deserve to be treated better than mushrooms.

There has been some conversation about removing the Army Corps as the ultimate decision maker on water issues in the Lake O and Everglades areas. That suggestion used to sound like a convenient political ploy to punish the federal government that controls the Army Corps of Engineers. And it may be that, at least in part. The idea of having the state of Florida in charge of water quality, with the political machinations that guide Tallahassee, has seemed like a move from the frying pan into the fire. But with their latest move delaying CEPP again and putting funding in jeopardy, the Corps has given those wishing to remove them from the final decision-making seat yet another reason to ponder a change.

What can we the people do? Get your local, state and federal elected representatives involved. Support their efforts to deal with this problem. If you don’t know how to reach them, you can check this website from the Lee Election office listing federal, state and local contact information: Let them know that you are concerned for the environmental and economic damage caused by current water management policies. Those policies result in last year’s brown water deluge that turned our bay and Gulf into a brown mess and continue to contribute to a water-starved Everglades. Those policies kill sea grass growing in the rivers that manatees and other sea life need to survive. They kill oyster beds and more. They harm our tourism economy.

Sending Lake O water down the rivers to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico may seem like the only solution when the lake level rises, but it has real world environmental and economic consequences. Those consequences have been ignored for far too long. Last year our voices were heard and projects were fast-tracked. The Army Corps has just brought a big chunk of those projects to a standstill. They need to find a way to cut through the red tape and fix this problem now, not in three months or worse, another 7 years.

Missy Layfield

"You have to stand up for some things in this world.”

-- Marjory Stoneman Douglas