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Water could be defining issue in elections

By Staff | Jul 28, 2016

It’s no secret. The water discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River has become a real issue in Southwest Florida and its tourism industry.

As Cape Coral gets closer to the Aug. 30 primaries and the Nov. 8 general election, the issue of water quality could well be the deciding one for voters.

That is why candidates have gone after each other tooth-and-nail about the issue and, although they all agree the solution is simple and that something has to be done, that hasn’t stopped them from challenging each other in debates, calling them out on a refusal to sign water quality pledges and accusing them of being cronies of special interests.

Dan Bongino, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives District 19 seat being vacated by Curt Clawson, said it is definitely the main issue in the Republican primary, with problems in a lake he describes as a “toilet bowl with water being flushed east and west.”

“I have knocked on 774 doors; all the people I’ve spoken to when asked what the biggest issue is, water comes up as the main issue 90 percent of the time,” Bongino, of Palm City, said. “They have a blue-green algae problem in the east that’s been described as guacamole thick. I think we can call that a crisis.”

“I think it’s the only issue. Everything in our social and commercial life grows out of that river,” said Jason Maughan, of Sanibel, who faces incumbent Lizbeth Benacquisto in the Republican primary for State Senate District 27. “If all that ceases, we have no way to look after our elderly, build more schools or economic opportunities for the community.”

For Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resource Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the issue is a matter of survival.

“Life cannot exist without clean water. This should have no boundaries or labels, it’s our very livelihood,” Wessel said. “The water is what everyone needs, so it’s foundational.”

Matt Caldwell, Republican incumbent in District 79 who faces John W. Scott, a Democrat, and Matt Miller, of no party affiliation, in November in November, said it’s certainly one of the bigger issues, up there with jobs, economy and public safety. It’s been getting the funding that’s been frustrating.

“The fact is we collectively have been studying policy for the Everglades for the last 30 years. What’s been lacking has been the finances to get it done,” said Caldwell, of Fort Myers. “We’ve been focusing on getting the money delivered to the district to build projects. That’s been the frustrating part.”

Scott, North Fort Myers, said the fact Republicans are running ads on clean water shows they’re seeing this, at least in their base, as an issue. Even the main issue for some. But added this isn’t a party line problem.

“It’s up there with ISIS, and with (Chauncey) Goss and (Francis) Rooney (Republican candidates in the 19th Congressional District race) talking about it, it’s getting federal attention,” Scott said. “The science is there. It’s a political problem. There have been folks aligned with Big Sugar that have obstructed it for years, and there are as many Democrats who are as guilty of taking sugar money as Republicans.”

The rainy winter Lee County has had brought the issue into sharp focus as tourists got a glimpse of the brownish water washing into the gulf and into areas where they are used to seeing clear, blue water.

Among the issues is the signing of the “Now or Neverglades” pledge by candidates, which urges lawmakers to use Amendment 1 money to restore the Everglades by purchasing the land south of the lake so the water can flow to the south and not the rivers to the east and west.

Goss, of Sanibel, has signed the pledge, as have State Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen and Maughan, while Rooney said at the Republicans Club meeting in Cape Coral on Tuesday, when asked by Goss if he would sign the pledge, that he would not.

“In doing so, Rooney chose to side with special interests over the interests of all Floridians,” the Goss campaign said in a press release.

Rooney, meanwhile, has blasted the Obama administration for failed leadership on the issue while praising Tallahassee for the $2 billion in Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan enhancements.

Rooney, Naples, said there needs to be a change of strategy to get the federal government to come on board, and that it takes someone from the private sector to make it happen.

“It will unite the community, deliver a clear message to Washington and get out money to partner with the state to get the restoration underway and clean up the lake,” Rooney said. “If we go to Washington without a clear idea, we’ll never get the money. We’re competing with infrastructure projects from all over the country.”

Bongino said he would be open to reading the pledge, but said he’s not a fan of such things, in general.

“I don’t like when people shove things in front of people’s faces. I like Chauncey a lot, but I don’t agree with that tactic,” Bongino said. “Making enemies out of allies and demonizing Republicans for being anti-environment is not going to help.”

Wessel said it would behoove the candidates to sign the pledge, as words come easy and signing would send a message they know the importance.

“Things said in a campaign are cheap. To anyone not willing to sign this petition, it says they either don’t understand the issue or has a different agenda,” Wessel said. “You should be suspicious of anyone who wouldn’t be willing to protect the future of Florida for the next generations.”

Among the other accusations being made are at candidates accused of taking money from, or at last sides with, special interests, notably “Big Sugar.”

Caldwell has been accused by Miller, and Benacquisto by Maughan of being “paid off” by Big Sugar campaign contributions as have other candidates.

“Caldwell doesn’t represent us. He represents those who pollute the rivers. The water issue is huge for Lee County with tourism and those on the river,” Miller, of Alva, said. “There’s a half-million reasons he doesn’t represent District 79. We have to get rid of big money.”

Caldwell said it’s not right to stop certain people from being involved in the process, even if they are big corporations.

“Why allow anybody to contribute? Newspapers don’t sell their endorsements to advertisers and members of the legislature don’t sell its vote to stakeholders,” Caldwell said.

“The problem is systemic. She’s not concerned with our concerns. She’s concerned with what she can do for Big Sugar and special interests. They have instructed her to maintain the status quo,” said Maughan, who has challenged Benacquisto to a debate. “This should have started six years ago. We have to start now.”

The Benacquisto campaign did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Wessel said sugar has always been at the table and always will be. The big problems are politics, policy and money, and it doesn’t have to be because in the long run, everyone will gain with restoration.

“There was a report done that showed for every dollar invested in Everglades restoration, there was a $4 return with tourism, fishing, licenses, boat rentals, everything for a national park that is unique,” Wessel said. “There are also ecosystem services such as oysters, which are great to eat and clean the water at an amazing rate.”

The solutions are simple, most agree. It’s getting there that’s the issue. With agricultural concerns, the myriad of other projects that need to be done, it could take decades for anything significant to happen.

“The water has to go south, the natural flow. How to do it is obvious. The question is who has the guts,” Bongino said. “They seem to have excuses for why it can’t be done.”

As for the time issue, Wessel has some words of wisdom.

“There’s an adage, ‘When is the best time to plant a tree? 50 years ago. The second best time? Today,” Wessel said.