Local Leaders Take Water Woes to DC
On Thursday morning, local lawmakers and a contingent of folks from both the east and west coasts made their way to Washington D.C. for a special bipartisan hearing on our water issues conducted by Congressmen Trey Radel (R) and Patrick Murphy (D) that included speeches from Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane. During the four-hour meeting, some 26 members of Congress stopped in to listen as our decades-long water quality battle finally received national attention.
Murphy began the meeting by saying he was impressed with the number of folks who came to the meeting, especially the group of 'Water Warriors' from both coasts who held fundraisers to take a bus to get to the capitol.
"It's because of all of you that this is going on, and I'm honored to stand with you as we call national attention to this crisis in our waterways," he said. "I know that - with the shut down - there was concern that this meeting would be cancelled, but this is too important not to move forward with and I assure you that this meeting will be shown to every single member of the House and the Senate." Due to the federal shut down, no one from the Army Corps of Engineers was present.
Murphy went on to point out that this problem has been going on for decades and that the point of the meeting is to discuss short term and long term solutions that will involve cooperation on all levels of government.
"Moving water south is a crucial component, and authorization to work on the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) is vital," he said. "Florida also has a unique opportunity to purchase land south of the lake, and I hope they do so. It is also important to maintain land north of the lake, and I've been working on some innovative water storage ideas. As far as short term, just last week I sent the Corps a letter urging them to find a way to send more water south now."
The first speaker was Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard.
"This year we've had lots of rain, whereas two years ago we were in a drought and it’s a difficult situation to manage with all the wild weather," he said. "For short term solutions, we're directing water everywhere else we can right now away from the rivers. We own a lot of land and we're pumping water into areas that don't normally see them - 10 billion gallons of water directed away from those estuaries. The governor has also directed me to expedite any permits that would solve these problems, like knocking a 200-foot gap in the Tamiami Trail."
Congressman Bill Shuster then talked about the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), saying that Florida is well represented within the bill and that it has unanimously passed the House Committee and will go to a vote in a couple of weeks.
"I feel confident we'll have this on the president's desk soon, and I want to make sure we do one every two years instead of six," he said.
Next to speak was Ernie Barnett, South Florida Water Management District Acting Director, who gave provided some history on what led to the problems Florida is facing today.
"This system was designed for two and half million people and now there are 7 million," he said. "It does what it is supposed to - drain the land. About 85% of the water that now leaves the lake goes down the rivers. The best thing that we can do is to continue the interim actions directed by the Governor and Senator Negron, and to that end we amended our budget in midstream so we can continue those operations through the end of the rainy season. We've had staff working diligently to complete CEPP, and we thank Congress for allowing projects like that to be retroactively worked into WRDA four to six months after it was passed."
Radel asked Barnett how the Corps could 'get out of the way' so the state could move forward with the projects.
"One thing that has been discussed is to allow the local sponsor to be in charge of the construction of projects, and the concept of a 'block grant' to allow us to build," Barnett replied. "As far as storage, keep in mind that 1 foot of water on the lake equals 500,000 acre feet of storage. The two reservoirs that are being built on both coasts - C-43 and C-44 can each hold about 80,000 acre feet."
Another congressman pointed out that the four water projects in WRDA will cost the Corps $1.2 billion to implement, but their budget is only $1 billion for the entire country.
"One of the things that I hope, is that we can collectively come together and say we have some fundamental water needs that we must address if we are going to serve two priorities - the economy and environmental protection."
Senator Bill Nelson said that the water issue in south Florida was first addressed 25 years ago.
"After we lost so many people during that hurricane in the 1920's, the idea was to get rid of the water and everything after that followed that logic," he said. "Now we're in this 40 year process called Everglades Restoration that starts far north of Lake Okeechobee and goes south. We've got to continue the appropriations for this. I grew up on the Indian River. When I was a kid, it was clear. It ‘ain't’ now. I ask ya'll to keep up the pressure to get these projects funded!"
Florida Senator Joe Negron spoke next, saying that the Corps stewardship of the lake has been an 'abject failure'.
"Only Congress can solve this problem by taking away their control and turn it over to the state," he said. "They do still need to complete the fortifications on the dike and the 2008 LORS schedule needs to account for the fortifications that have already been done. I also ask you to transcend the exception to the Clean Water Act that allows the Corps to move polluted water from one water body to another - that is something that would be illegal for anyone else."
Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker pointed out the economic impacts of water quality during his testimony, where he passionately pleaded for relief from a decade of disasters.
"That partnership begins and ends with the folks back home," he said. "The Caloosahatchee is vital to our economy, and a clean and healthy environment is one of the biggest cogs that drives our economic engine - tourism - which is worth $3 billion in Lee. Every time we have 85 visitors, it equates to one job, and over 90% of them come for beaches and clean water…but the image of black water on our beaches spreads around the world in seconds. You only have one chance at a first impression. May I remind you that (Hurricane) Charley was awful for our community, then we had two to three feet of red drift algae, that was followed by the BP oil spill and now we have these unrealistic releases from the lake. Sustaining these discharges is something we can't keep doing, we need action and we need it now. The people back home gave us their hope and we need to give them answers!"
Dr. Brian LaPointe, a scientist at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, said that he has managed to directly correlate water releases with red tide.
"I've worked with Lee County, conducting a timeline of flows and lining them up with red tide events - you can see all the major releases line up directly with red tide events," he said. "And we've done research on the effects of the releases on the coral reefs - when that water flows out of Shark River to the Keys, it carries a lot of nitrogen, and we've found that water directly causes eutrophication (death) of the coral."
At the end of the meeting, Beach resident John Heim said his ten-year old daughter understands that Plan 6 is the only solution and asked why the politicians can't seem to figure that out before handing the microphone to Fort Myers Beach Mayor Alan Mandel, who concluded the briefing with a comment on tourism.
"Of the $3 billion of tourist dollars that comes to Lee County, 22% of that number comes from outside of our country and that's very significant to us," Mandel said. "That's an awful lot of dollars that are coming in and multiplying, please remember that."
Keri Hendry Weeg