DeSantis, Rooney and others hold roundtable on water issues
Congressman Francis Rooney held a roundtable meeting with Gov. Ron DeSantis, along with federal, state and local officials on May 7, at the Florida Gulf Coast University Emergent Technologies Institute to discuss issues pertaining to harmful algal blooms that ravished local waterways just a year ago.
“The purpose of this meeting today was to get the federal level and the state level experts in contact with our mayors, our city managers and our local professors at FGCU, who are working to find solutions,” Rooney said at a press conference following the roundtable discussion.
The hour-long session saw scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, members of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Lee County municipality leaders gather in one setting to better network with one another.
The discussion was not open to the public nor the media, with a few rowdy local residents making their displeasures heard at the press conference outside.
DeSantis opened by touting Everglades and water quality dollars secured at the most recent legislative session.
“The agenda was bold,” DeSantis said of his requests. “I think everyone recognized it was bold. As part of that, we asked for a record $625 million for water quality and for Everglades restoration. I’m pleased to report, with the legislative session having concluded – we didn’t get exactly $625 million, we got more than $625 million. I think it’s a historic commitment by the Florida Legislature. They answered the call that I put out shortly upon taking office.”
“Now, we’re working with the president to get over $200 million this year to keep moving forward on the EAA Reservoir,” Rooney added.
The governor spoke about how he himself saw the impacts of last year’s algal blooms, noting the empty restaurants and beaches he saw in coastal communities.
“Nobody understands more than these guys behind me, how this effects the local communities here,” DeSantis said of the local officials in attendance. “We want to make sure that we’re pressing forward on trying to meet these challenges.”
DeSantis has since formed a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, along with naming Dr. Thomas K. Frazer as the state of Florida’s first-ever chief science officer.
“They are going to basically be developing approaches, letting us know what’s the best use of the money (and) how do you approach this problem? We want the best science,” DeSantis said.
Despite the momentum of funding and task forces, the governor was clear that a fix may not be in the immediate future.
“This is not something that’s going to be solved in a day, a month or even a year. But, I think we’ve done more in just four short months than probably anybody in an awful long time,” DeSantis said.
A profound issue of the outbreak last summer was the lack of knowledge when it came to the health detriments of being exposed to blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, wether by contact or inhalation.
“I don’t think anybody knows for sure what the blue-green algae does to health, but we definitely view it as a public health issue. And I think those were some of the concerns that you saw aired today,” DeSantis said.
Rooney received some backlash heading into the meeting from the public on why they could not hear from scientists what they believe to be the negative health effects of blue-green algae.
Both DeSantis and Rooney said there is a lot of work to be done in that realm. Rooney, who organized the roundtable, said the science officials did not feel comfortable having the media present, therefore he decided to oblige to their wishes rather than have no discussion at all.
“I don’t think it would be right for me to betray the confidence of either our local health officials, or the CDC people, about what they’ve talked about. At least now, our people know a lot more. The CDC people know our people, and they can communicate more effectively,” Rooney said.
When asked about their findings, Rooney replied, “I wouldn’t call them findings. I would call them feelings and judgments based upon the data they continue to learn. This is a new phenomenon. They’re working very hard to get their arms around it.”
Rooney mentioned that there has been new funding for exploratory programs aimed at public health.
“I think there was a unified commitment that we need to know (what the health effects are). I think it would be foolish to not want to have all the facts on that,” DeSantis said.
Rooney continued to drive home the message of the meeting being a positive networking opportunity for officials from various levels and realms to build connections and return to their sectors with a better knowledge of the situation.
“The more information we can get our mayors and city managers and commissioners armed with to be able to present the public with realistic, science-based facts, and remove some of the fear and hysteria, the better off we’re all going to be,” Rooney said.
DeSantis said he has personally spoken to President Donald Trump about how drastic the water quality issues are in Florida, and that Trump “gets Florida” and understands the importance of water quality in the state because of the second home he has here.
The governor said he told Trump that, “(The Army Corps of Engineers are) managing this lake, and even though this stuff gets spewed into the estuaries and it hurts these coastal communities – they don’t even consider that when they’re making these decisions.
“Other presidents have had opportunity to have a decisive impact on some of this in Florida. They haven’t really done it. This is an opportunity for the Trump administration to really leave a positive mark on Florida.”
He said that the new posture with the ACOE is a positive step as it is now managing Lake Okeechobee at lower levels and, perhaps, may not have discharges at all down the line.
“We’re in a better position today to not have as many, or hopefully no discharges, than we have been in many years,” DeSantis said.
He also noted that he has been in contact with the White House Environmental Policy Team, and that it is noticing the work being done in Florida.
Projects such as the EAA Reservoir, the raising of Tamiami Trail and the restoration of the Herbert Hoover Dike can all lead down a road to improved water quality.
“We want to bring all of this to fruition, and that will make an impact and it will reduce the amount of polluted water that is going into our bodies of water here,” DeSantis said.
Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello was one of the many mayors in attendance and felt the roundtable was a productive experience.
“Cape Coral was the epicenter of the blue-green algae that we dealt with last summer and to hear the scientists, different agencies – and to find out more about what they can do to create, perhaps, some predictability models, so next time we won’t be caught off guard the way we were,” he said.
His biggest takeaway from the meeting?
“My biggest takeaway is that we’re all working together. We’re all working, I think, on eight cylinders, pushing forward with the projects and the funding that I know needs to take place,” Coviello said.
He said he is hopeful that the residents of Cape Coral will not have to endure another summer of canals filled with thick vats of foul-smelling blue-green algae.
“My message is that we need to be aware,” Coviello said. “I’m hoping there’s better predictability so we can be better prepared. We know last year when we had it, we were caught off guard, we had never had anything like that before. It was unprecedented. We did do some good clean up, and hopefully we don’t have to do that again.”