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Guest Commentary: Water quality fate in the hands of the state

By Staff | Mar 2, 2016

There has been a great deal of press recently concerning several of our local mayors traveling to Washington D.C. to speak to our Congressional delegation and United States Army Corps of Engineers about the dirty water crises stemming from the excessive release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.

Fortunately, Sen. Bill Nelson and Congressman Curt Clawson are extremely supportive and responsive in working to address the harm to coastal estuaries on the west and east coast of Florida. In fact, Sen. Nelson and Congressman Clawson are supporting legislation that would expedite federal funding for the Central Everglades Planning Project to facilitate water flow to the Everglades.

However, the real heavy lifting should be focused on Gov. Scott and the state legislature. For it is the state that has jurisdiction over water quality. It was the Governor and state legislature that refused to use Amendment 1 funds to purchase land south of the lake to store, treat and convey water to the Everglades. And, it is the Governor and state legislature, during the 2016 legislative session, that recently approved a “Water Bill” that will all but make it impossible to clean up the dirty water by giving the sugar industry safe harbor from being held accountable in efforts to restore Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee and our coastal estuaries.

Several legislators from the west and east coast of Florida are sponsoring legislation (HB 989 and CS/SB 1168) to use a specified percentage of funds within the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to be appropriated for Everglades restoration projects. Unfortunately, the concern is that the language in the companion bills makes no mention of land acquisition and that the funds will ultimately be used for agricultural related water projects including excessive payments to landowners to store water on privately owned lands or for infrastructure such as pumps, pipes and culverts.

Furthermore, the Lee County Commission has failed to work proactively in efforts to responsibly address the devastating discharge of polluted water causing adverse impact to our environment and economy. But, it is not surprising, given the lavish contributions U.S. Sugar has injected in the County Commission campaigns of commissioners Larry Kiker and Brian Hamman. Commissioner Mann continues to mislead the public by suggesting that the dark, turbid water flowing from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee into our coastal estuaries is the result of natural organic tannins released from vegetation such as mangroves. Tannic acid imparts a light tea color to the water allowing for photosynthesis whereas, the heavily polluted laden dark water from land-based nutrient runoff prevents sunlight penetration and kills critical forage and habitat for fin and shell fish. In actuality, it is chemical waste including pesticides, insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers such as nitrogen and phosphorous along with sediment back pumped into Lake Okeechobee from the sugar cane fields that is contributing to the dirty water enveloping our waterways.

It is encouraging that Captains For Clean Water, a new coalition of anglers, charter boat captains and business community, are recognizing that the root of the problem to cleaning up the Caloosahatchee and coastal estuaries is unresponsive local and state elected officials.

The dirty water crises should hopefully energize the voters during the 2016 campaign season but, only if there are credible people willing to run for public office and challenge the status quo.

– Ray Judah is a former Lee County commissioner and a long-time environmental activist.