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Water quality subject of summit

By Staff | Jun 29, 2016

City leaders and experts came from both sides of Lake Okeechobee to discuss a subject that has started to have a negative impact on water quality and tourism.

The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau in Fort Myers was the site for the Lake Okeechobee Learning Collaborative on Wednesday, June 22. Lee County mayors, supported by the Florida League of Cities and the Florida League of Mayors, invited civic leaders from all over South Florida to focus on the problems and solutions concerning the lake, the rivers that flow from them, and the restoration of the Everglades, among other things.

Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane said 19 counties, with property valued collectively at more than $2 trillion, are impacted by the releases from Lake O, and that by talking about the issues together, they may come up with some solutions.

“We put together a White Paper that’s 47 pages long, where we talk about short-term and long-term issues and projects at the state and federal level,” Ruane said. “Follow the playbook. Everything is in there, north, south, east and west.”

All the guests received a copy of the “White Paper,” which allowed them to get a handle on what was happening on the Caloosahatchee side of things.

Guests speakers included Ruane, Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson and Florida League of Cities President Matt Surrency, mayor of Hawthorne.

James Evans, Natural Resources Director of Sanibel, and Deborah Drum, of the Ecosystem Restoration & Management Division of Martin County, talked about the problems plaguing the estuaries of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Among them was one of the wettest winters on record, which sent a record amount of water down the rivers from Lake O and saturated the basins and watersheds.

Matt Morrison, Michael Collis and Drew Bartlett discussed solutions, which all of them said there was no one silver bullet that would solve the problems overnight. Not even storage.

“The solution is an enormous storage of water. It’s possible, but you can’t build storage south of the lake if you don’t do it north,” Morrison said. “We’re on the brink of sending so much water to the south that it will have adverse effects.”

Ruane and many others agreed that it will take a conglomeration of many ideas, and all will take lots of time and money.

There was also a policy discussion and a Q&A session with all the experts, moderated by State Rep. Matt Caldwell. Among the issues discussed were how to reduce the amount of nutrients in the water and climate change and its impact on water quality.

Many of the mayors, including Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki, are already aware of all the issues, so there wasn’t much they heard that surprised them. But the fact that so many came from hours away showed the commitment they had to addressing an issue that could have dire consequences down the road.

“The League of Cities took it and ran with it. They did a wonderful job. I hope we can come up with a common agenda,” Sawicki said. “None of this is new to me, so we need to know where we agree and bring that course to the legislators. What do we have in common?”

Surrency said with this issue, there are no sides to the aisle.

“There is no right side or left side of the aisle. There is no partisan politics,” Surrency said. “We’re in the aisle, so keep the buzzwords out.”

In the end, many local officials thought this was a very successful event, and they did learn something,

“I learned a lot. I try to keep up on things. It’s promising and as long as everyone sticks together and keeps things moving forward, we’ll be in good hands,” Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dennis Boback said. “The problems effect the beach a little more in some ways than others, because we deal with the brown water and how it effects our tourism.”

“It was a great conversation, an opportunity for stakeholders to come together and give their perspective on the issue,” Caldwell said. “We’ve vetted many of the issues in Tallahassee, but getting all the cities together was such a big task. There was a commonality and a goal.”