Estuary in Peril
Senate Committee Hosts Water Hearing
Mayor Mandel Urges Estuary Protection
Several hundred citizens turned out last Thursday to hear from water and environmental experts and share their concerns with water releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Estuary.
Chaired by State Senator Joe Negron of Stuart, the Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin includes eight other Senators, including Lizbeth Benacquisto of Southwest Florida.
The panel heard from Secretary Herschel Vinyard of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; Ernie Barnett, Interim Executive Director of the South Florida Water Management District and Colonel Alan Dodd, District Commander for the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
Doing the heavy lifting for environmental concerns were representatives from the Everglades Foundation, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute of Florida Atlantic University, Audubon Florida and Florida Oceanographic Society. Supporting them with testimony from the floor were representatives of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Society, Conservancy of SWFL, Sierra Club and River Kids, a youth group in Stuart focused on St. Lucie River issues and a host of other concerned citizens.
During Fort Myers Beach Mayor Alan Mandel’s testimony, coming over six hours into the hearing, he urged lawmakers to recognize the short and long term economic damage of the releases, citing the preliminary results of a Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce survey that showed that over 90% of accommodation members have had guests say they are not coming back; 70% have had cancellations.
"This is just a few weeks into the economic recovery," he said. "When we had the BP spill, we didn’t have anything to see. Now you can see the water. We have to allocate some funds to help promote the areas hard hit by the releases. I hope that you’ll take some of these ideas today and find a place to store water, but we’re going to have to counter the impact of what’s going on, not just on our island, but the whole area."
Negron interjected that the state has had some good news. The first six months of 2013 were the best six months ever, even better than ’05-’06.
"Tourism is still very important to Florida. We are still a tourist state…I wouldn’t want to pay $200/night for the water I’ve been seeing…we have to let people know, ‘give us another chance'.”
A host of citizens spoke about the effects the lake releases have had on their lives and businesses. None more memorable than Native American Bobby Billie.
"I’m not here for the Miccosukee or Seminoles, I’m independent – here for nature and the environment," he said. "We have survived for millions and millions of years. Newcomers came to our land and changed it, drained it, killing it. You need to wake up right now. We’re over the edge.”
Negron pushed presenters and speakers to focus on short-term solutions, assuring the crowd that the committee is capable of acting before next March when the Florida Legislature convenes for the 2014 session.
Some ideas that came from several speakers:
• Declare a State of Emergency that could allow the governor to force the federal government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to alter the water release schedule dictated by the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Water Release Schedule (LORS).
• Expand water storage and treatment north of the lake.
• Broaden septic tank rules to prevent leakage into ground water. Encourage municipal sewer system use near bays and rivers.
• Expand water treatment and storage south of the lake, ensuring that before water is released into the Everglades, it is treated to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels.
• Raise water levels in the Everglades Agriculture Areas (EAA) a few inches to store more water.
• Encourage local fertilizer ordinances that ban fertilizer use during rainy season.
• Get federal and state funding for projects approved years ago to store water and restore the Everglades.
• Restore the water district budgets to allow completion of approved projects.
Colonel Dodd explained the basic issue related to concern over failure of the Herbert Hoover dike.
"The Corps manages Lake Okeechobee through a systemic approach that balances several competing needs but protection of lives and preventing catastrophic failure is our top priority. Currently releases east and west are our only choices.”
Under questioning from Negron, Dodd consistently defended the LORS plan, noting that not enough progress has been made on lake projects yet to warrant a revision of the plan.
Negron pushed for a fresh look and questioned the priorities on the 2008 schedule.
"Do you take into account the catastrophic effect of what’s being done, the hundred of millions of dollars in loss to our communities? It seems the Corps is fixated on the dike to the exclusion of these other issues.”
Dodd defended the Corps’ plan, "It’s a balancing act we are doing, and we’re doing it according to LORS.”
He brushed aside questions about water quality, noting that, "Water quality is a state issue. We convey water from one location to another.”
Dr. Tom Van Lent, Senior Scientist of The Everglades Foundation, summed up the water release issue as being primarily of two problems: 1) water quantity and 2) water quality.
He explained that the nitrogen and phosphorous is not just a Lake O problem, but come from watershed run-off, septic tanks and fertilizer use.
"We need to focus on water quality in the local (watershed) basin in addition to the lake water. The local basin provides 58% of the water flowing into the estuaries and more than half of the nutrients in that water come from the local (watershed) basin.”
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane encouraged the committee to use balance in considering the water release problem, noting that there is a real economic effect caused by the water releases. Tourism, construction, real estate values are all affected. He echoed a request by Fort Myers Beach Mayor Mandel, inviting the committee to the west coast.
Senior Vice-President of Corporate Strategy and Business Development for United States Sugar, Bubba Wade, encouraged treatment of water north of the lake along with immediate construction of the C-43 reservoir. He also urged those who feel they are not being heard by federal agencies to address those agencies directly.
After six hours of testimony, Negron announced four action items the committee will focus on as it works on recommendations for the full Senate:
1. Reevaluate the 2008 LORS to be sure it balances the risk of overflow with the damage done by lake releases.
2. Find additional water storage.
3. Evaluate whether a state of emergency declaration would impact the state’s ability to work with the federal government to address the releases.
4. Investigate how septic tanks may be contributing to the problem and how the problem can be addressed while protecting private property rights.
To follow the Senate Select Committee or submit comments, go to: http://www.flsenate.gov/topics/irllob