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Mayors take water quality issue to Washington

By Staff | Feb 26, 2016

Mayor Marni Sawicki has just returned from Washington, D.C., where she spent two days lobbying House and Senate legislators trying to drum up support for legislation aimed at cleaning up the Caloosahatchee River estuary being damaged by excess water discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

Congressman Curt Clawson and Sen. Bill Nelson co-sponsored a bill to provide funds to strengthen the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake O. in an effort to create a flow-way south through the Everglades.

“… Clawson cleared his schedule for two days to walk us through all 17 meetings we had,” said Sawicki. “That really, really impressed me as well as the passion he has for this problem. He’s willing to stand up for it.”

In addition to the flow-way and dike talking points, the delegation harped on the negative economic impact on Southwest Florida’s tourism industry when the nutrient-rich lake discharges turn the river and nearshore Gulf of Mexico beach waters a murky brown color.

Sawicki and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane and Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson visited with the Army Corps of Engineers, Senate and House appropriations committees for energy and water, the Senate engineers and public works committee, House transportation committee for infrastructure and other various subcommittees.

“We made some progress,” said Sawicki. “The Corps of Engineers actually agrees with us, but unless the dike bill gets put in the president’s budget there won’t be any money for this.”

Constructing the flow-way will require purchasing 153,000 acres of land still under option with US Sugar until 2020. The price is estimated around $1 billion. If the purchase goes through, other sugar lands may be needed and acquired through land swaps.

Legislation seeks federal matching funds with Florida to make the purchase in addition to funding the dike project. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent $750 million on restoring 22 miles of the dike with another 122 miles slated for repairs to prevent potential breaches that could jeopardize residents and property.

Citizens voted overwhelmingly (75 percent) in November 2014 to approve Amendment 1 for the purpose of purchasing lands south of Lake Okeechobee needed to restore the Everglades. State legislators continue to allocate $800 million per year for everything except what the voters intended, critics say, adding the legislature should issue a bond immediately to purchase the needed land.

“Commissioners from the East Coast were there, too,” said Sawicki. “Now the East Coast and West Coast are on the same page. We’re going to put together an East-West coalition to have an even stronger voice on this matter.”

A southern flow-way is the most ideal, and least costly, alternative to water storage and take less time than the C-43 reservoir project. Often referred to as Plan 6, it has evolved with several revisions over the years since its inception in 1955. It is based on sound science instead of vague, conceptual ideas, its proponents say. A water treatment component must accompany the C-43 reservoir construction.

The five municipal mayors, including Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs, will meet on Sanibel today to discuss what they can go from here.