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Local water woes bring Nelson, Clawson to Fort Myers

By Staff | Feb 27, 2016

Just five days ago, three Lee County mayors were in Washington, D.C., to express their concerns about the polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee that arrive locally via the Caloosahatchee River. On Saturday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Congressman Curt Clawson (R-Bonita Springs) were in downtown Fort Myers to return the favor and see things for themselves.

“It’s our No. 1 issue,” said Clawson on Saturday, speaking at the Fort Myers Public Pier Building with the very river in question as the backdrop, as he and Nelson met with all six county mayors. “Our economy depends on it and it’s the right thing to do by God’s creation and God’s creatures.”

He said he will introduce on Monday three new bills that will attack the problem:

* In a desire to move dirty water toward the Everglades, he is pushing for not only the state to purchase land south of the lake but for the federal government to do the same, in case the state drags its feet.

* He is asking the Army Corps of Engineers to complete the dike at the lake within five years.

* He is asking for one year of relief regarding intrusion upon the seaside sparrow, which is considered an endangered specie in the region.

Clawson then asked the mayors to beat the drum behind his proposals.

“Make as much noise as we can.” he said. “We’re the underdog on this.”

With that, Clawson and Nelson said the best approach is to have the mayors encourage their residents to bombard the state’s representatives with phone calls, letters and emails in both Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee.

“Blow up the phones,” said Nelson, who noted he felt he had adequate support to begin to push through his roughly $2 billion in initiatives – including his Central Everglades Planning Project – this summer to move water south. He said it would be the first water bill passed in seven years.

The trick will be getting the House to be on board, said Clawson, who will be educating his peers on south Florida’s problems.

“We are the drain-off for the rest of the state,” he said. “It’s not fair.”

Phillip Roland, the mayor of Clewiston which is located near Lake Okeechobee, agreed that much of the problem can be found to the north.

“From the start of the Kissimmee River, there’s 5,600 square miles above the lake that is home to mostly farms, so you know what is coming from that,” he said. “It begins at Disney World’s parking lot. When they flush their toilets there, two-and-a-half days later it’s in the lake.”

When the lake gets too high, which has occurred recently as a result of January’s unusually high rain levels that exceeded 14 inches, the Army Corps of Engineers release water to both the west (two-thirds of the excess) and the east (one-third). Locally, it shows up near the south part of Sanibel Island and often floats to Fort Myers Beach.

Meanwhile, Roland said the common mindset that back-pumping of water by sugar farmers is mostly to blame are exaggerated, but he acknowledged it was needed to be done in January as farm land flooded.

Nelson said a part of the problem stems from the fact the Kissimmee River was dug years ago more as a straight ditch.

“If it meandered about, it would help cleanse itself,” he said.

Further, Nelson said the gradual elimination of natural marsh land to serve as a cleanser has exacerbated the problem.

One helpful move, he said, would be to purchase land from ranchers north of the lake to serve as easements. As part of the contract, the ranchers would be required to operate in a more environmentally responsible fashion.

Nelson explained how the creation of Tamiami Trail across the Everglades in the late 1920s created an inadvertent dike, soaking the land north of it and creating a drought south of it.

Around the same time, approximately 2,500 people near Lake Okeechobee died in the wake of a hurricane, creating a heighten sense of fear about flooding.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, he said, as the barrier has been breached along a 1-mile bridge. He is pushing to have more of Tamiami Trail raised to allow for more flow.

That time can’t come soon enough for Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda, who reminded the senator and congressman how dire things are.

“When I look at our water, I get chills,” she said. “I’ve seen this before, but there’s something different about it this time. It’s killing my town.”

Cereceda said a couple of tourists Saturday morning even asked her if there had been another BP oil spill.

“I’m hanging every hope I have on you two gentlemen,” she said.

Nelson ensured her that progress seemed likely, but warned her in saying “This process is painfully slow because it’s incredibly expensive.”