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Locals lobby for funding in D.C.

By Staff | May 3, 2018

Lee County activists migrated north to Washington D.C.to convince lawmakers to support funding for Everglades restoration.

There is a 2018 Water Resources Development Act poised for review this year, and those who support Everglades restoration are hoping to get federal money to help build the new Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee.

Representatives from a variety of conservation organizations, tourism industries and fishing and boating company owners joined forces to lobby leaders April 24 and 25 in the nation’s capital.

Among them were Rae Ann Wessel, policy director for Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, and Captain Daniel Andrews of Captains for Clean Water.

It was Andrews’ first time ever in D.C., and after two days of Everglades-centric focus, he said he did get to see some of the nation’s historical buildings.

The Everglades Foundation helped to host the America’s Everglades Summit in D.C.on April 24 and 25, bringing in panelists across industries and guest speakers from both Congress and activist tables to speak about the importance of the Everglades National Park to the nation. Andrews, Wessel and others spent one day in meetings with members of congress to explain the need for the funding.

Wessel said about 200 people from south Florida joined the effort.

“It was a really fantastic opportunity to share some information and take the temperature of Congress,” she said.

The reason for the lobbying now is convoluted into how the Everglades will get federal funding.

The Central Everglades Plan (CEP) was approved for funding by the federal government two years ago in the 2016 Water Resources Development Act. But at that time, the state of Florida didn’t have the land for the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

That changed last year with the passing of Senate Bill 10 in the Florida legislature, which allowed the state to seek out land from willing sellers and begin design of what’s called the Everglades Agricultural Area into the future reservoir. Right now, the EAA is leased to sugar companies, but the lease ends in 2019.

So now, the state has 10,100 acres of state-owned land to use for a 24-foot deep reservoir to hold run off from Lake Okeechobee when the lake gets too high. In addition, it has enough land for a 6,500 filter marsh to clean stormwater and an additional 500 acres it’s purchasing from a willing seller, Wessel said.

“It’s better than the goose egg we have now,” she said.

The reservoir could lead to a 40 to 60 percent reduction in the harmful freshwater releases into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, and a significant increase to freshwater releases that are needed for the deteriorating health of Florida Bay, Wessel said.

The federal government is in a 50-50 costshare with the state with the CEP, so lobbyists want to get the CEP amended to include the new EAA land in the scope. The CEP has to be amended for the EAA project to be included in funding, which comes through the WRDA bill.

So, the two “asks” of the lobbyists last week were the need to amend the CEP and additional federal funding for CEP. The state of Florida has proffered $200 million, Wessel said, and she hopes the federal government will match.

There’s no exact date when the WRDA bill will go for a vote; right now, it’s queued up to go to appropriations committees in Congress for vetting. Midterm elections could throw a wrench in the timeline, Wessel said.

The federal government also needs what’s called a “chief’s report” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the funding can be approved. If approved, Florida could see the EAA reservoir in the next eight years. It seems like a long time, but on a government schedule, that’s fast. In the past, it’s taken 10 years just to get the chief’s report, Wessel said. But in this case, the Corps is getting the report done in an year.

The Corps has until the end of September 2018 to finish the report and get it to Congress – a timeline that could conflict with the WRDA bill’s forward momentum.

But in a move that Wessel said “jaws were dropping,” U.S. Representative for Louisiana, Garrett Graves, said he’d put a placeholder in the WRDA bill if the report isn’t ready. Graves is also the chairman of the House subcomittee on water resources and the environment, and also serves of the transportation and infrastructure committee.

A placeholder is a unique, and uncommon, proposition.

“That’s an adaptation they’re making because they recognize the importance of this. It was astounding,” Wessel said. “These folks who are running these committees get it, and they’re from other states.”

Wessel said she was impressed with the understanding many Congress members had for the plight of the Everglades, even if they were from other states.

District 19 Representative, Francis Rooney, has spent the last two years inviting members of Congress to tour the Everglades in person and show them on a first-hand basis why the park matters on a national scale. Sen. Bill Nelson has made similar efforts.

Those visits made a difference, Wessel said.

Mike Quigley of Illinois, one representative who took up Rooney’s invitation, spoke during the Summit about his visit to Florida. He mentioned that while in the Everglades, he saw some of the same birds he also gets to see on the shores of Lake Michigan, and made the connection that Illinois can’t protect the birds up north if their Florida homes aren’t safe, too.

Andrews said the Florida delegation and the representatives who toured Florida with Rooney were well-informed, but as he and members of Captains for Clean Water spoke to Congress members from other states, he found that many weren’t fully aware of the issue.

Although his organization has been to lobby lawmakers in Tallahassee multiple times, it was Andrews’ first time lobbying on a national scale.

“It was interesting, working with members of Congress from across the country,” he said. “In Tallahassee, everyone knows about the Everglades (issue), but up there, it wasn’t well known.”

Andrews tackled the lack of knowledge from an angle that most lawmakers could relate to: tourism.

As a fishing charter captain, Andrews said he’s given fishing tours to visitors from the rest of the 49 states – and many countries around the world, too.

“I think every other state has a significant number of visitors that come to Florida. That point resonated for them, not every state can say their tourism industry attracts people from the rest of the world,” he said. “That’s an issue of national importance.”

With the tourism and fishing industries both bringing in billions annually for Florida, talking economics was important. Andrews was joined by the CEO of Hell’s Bay Boatworks, Chris Peterson, and a representative from SeaDek, a boat deck builder, to expand on the impact the Everglades has on their industries as well.

Andrews felt the meetings he had with about 16 Congress members went well, overall, and in general they seemed supportive of the Everglades projects. He, and Wessel, plan to continue to monitor the progress of the WRDA bill as it approaches a vote and maintain a relationship with the lawmakers they met in D.C.

“We won’t know what they’ll do next, but the initial conversations went as good as they could have,” he said. “The ability of an American to book a flight to Florida and be out of the beach, out fishing, that idea really resonated with them: a resources that everybody should be allowed to enjoy.”