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Lee County Mayor coalition meets in Sanibel to review Washington D.C. trip

By Staff | Feb 26, 2016

The Mayor coalition from Lee County created to help address the latest water quality issues from the Lake Okeechobee discharges, took their plight to the federal level in Washington D.C. last week.

The trio of Kevin Ruane (Sanibel), Randy Henderson (Fort Myers) and Marni Sawicki (Cape Coral) made the trip to Washington D.C. to talk with members of the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the Army Corp of Engineers about the Lake Okeechobee discharges, which have darkened not only the waters of the Gulf, but as well as economic and environmental impacts.

The rest of the coalition includes mayors Ben Nelson (Bonita Springs), Anita Cereceda (Fort Myers Beach) and Nick Batos (Estero). Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman was also in attendance to represent the Commissioners.

In a prepared statement outlining the goals and reasons why the three mayors made the trip to Washington D.C., there were four points of interest asking for federal assistance.

The first was to adopt a 2016 Water Resources Reform and Development Act bill and to authorize the funding Central Everglades Planning Project.

Second was to fully fund the improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike to help minimize the risk of failure, resulting in catastrophic events.

The third was to support the State’s request for a 90-day emergency temporary deviation from federal and state water quality criteria and restrictions. Those restrictions limit the amount of discharges allowed to the Everglades National Park during uncommon heavy rainfall during the dry season.

Lastly, the contingent met with representatives to request the Army Corps of Engineers to quicken the implementation of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir. That would provide an estimated 360,000 acre-feet of water storage, which would be 20-25 percent of total storage needed south of Lake Okeechobee of the 1.3 million acre-feet needed.

“We went there with one guided voice,” said Ruane. “Rep. Curt Clawson (19th Congressional District) was very hospitable for us and showed us around and introduced us to the right people. We also met with the Army Corps of Engineers and their message was that they needed more resources.”

The three mayors met with members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representative Committee and Appropriations.

Henderson reiterated Ruane’s sentiment that the trip was fruitful and they were well received from the politicians on Capital Hill.

“I was encouraged and I left feeling hopeful,” Henderson said. “There are 412 cities in Florida and we can’t have any finger pointing, we need to be united.”

Sawicki added the trip was productive in that they were able to talk with the right representatives about the water quality issues this area has been incurring.

“We were able to meet with high-ranking officials and the quality time we were able to have was amazing,” Sawicki said. “I felt we made headway and we were speaking as one.”

The three mayors had 19 meetings in the three days they were in Washington D.C. Henderson said that he was impressed the way Clawson, a Republican, and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, worked together well on the issue in a nonpartisan way.

“They discussed solutions in a nonpartisan way,” Henderson said. “That was heartening to see.”

Nelson plans to make a stop in Fort Myers over the weekend to see firsthand the problems the discharges from Lake “O” are causing.

Ruane said there needs to be “all hands on deck” if the goals of improving the flow of extra water from Lake Okeechobee are to be met. He suggested to invite Water Management officials to the next scheduled Mayors coalition meeting, as well as representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Again, we need to be united,” Ruane said. “There is no side more important than the other. We also were invited back, which is important.”

The third revision of the White Paper, which has been supported by hundreds of cities around the state and addresses water quality issues, is being worked on, as well.

The mayors also discussed the Amendment 1 funds and where they have gone and if they will ever be used to what they were voted on for.

That answer lies within the courts, Ruane said.

“The courts will decide what money is suppose to go where,” Ruane said. “It’s outside of our hands now.”

James Evans, the director of Natural Resources for Sanibel, said there is some good news in that Lake “O” dropped .14 of a foot last week in a report to the mayors. But there is still over maximum flow of discharge out of the lake and into the Caloosahatchee River, with 77-percent of the flows emanating from the lake.

“The Caloosahatchee is getting the lion’s share of discharge,” Evans said. “But the situation is starting to get dire, because the fish here will be entering their spawning season starting in March, which lasts through May.”

With the freshwater pouring in from the Caloosahatchee basin and into the Gulf of Mexico, salinity levels are being negatively effected, which in turn, effects the fish and their spawning season.

“If we lose the spawning season, lots will be lost,” Evans said. “Flows now are three times higher that our maximum target (level).”

One encouraging aspect is how far the freshwater plumes are reaching out into the Gulf. In 2013 when similar discharges were had, the freshwater plumes reached out 13 to 15 miles off shore.

“Right now, we measured the plume is less than a mile off shore,” Evans said.

There will be a some bets made, with the area hoping Mother Nature will back. If rainfall slackens up, that will help the level of Lake Okeechobee to fall.

Then the maximum levels of discharge can be had to help lower the Lake, which will in turn lessen the amount of cfs discharge in the future.

Basically, it’s take it now to have a brighter near future.

“If we take the maximum discharge now, maybe there will be a silver lining if Mother Nature cooperates,” Ruane said.

The obvious longterm solution which has been on everyones’ mind is adding more water storage in each the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie basins, as well as south of Lake Okeechobee.

Currently, all water storage is full to capacity, Evans said.

The goal is to find as much water storage as possible,” Evans said. “We have a long ways to go. We need to get 1.3 million acre-feet of water storage and we maybe have 10-percent or less of that done.”

A date for the next coalition meeting was not set, but Ruane assured there will be more set in the near future.

Meanwhile Lee County’s six mayors, Lee County Commissioner Brian Hammon, Nelson and Clawson will meet in downtown Fort Myers on Saturday to again discuss water quality issues, including legislation Nelson has introduced including legislation Neson has introduced “to expedite all Everglades-restoration projects that the Army Corps of Engineers deems ready to begin in the next five years.”

“One of the projects that would be authorized immediately if Nelson’s legislation passes is the Central Everglades Planning Project, or CEPP, which is designed to increase water flow south into the Everglades, thereby reducing harmful discharges into the Caloosahatchee River,” a release from Nelson’s office states.