As Lee County works to comply with the Clean Water Act, it is important to understand the value of improving water quality in our rivers and coastal estuaries for drinking, fishing, swimming and our multibillion dollar tourism and real estate based economy.
Rather than criticize the restoration of our waterways as a punitive unfunded federal mandate, so often decried by elected officials, a more thoughtful approach would be to accept the responsibility of cleaning up our waterways in our own backyard.
The highest priority to enhance water quality is to determine the source of pollutants and to that end, the County has implemented a number of programs and procedures to reduce contamination to ground and surface waters. Over the past several decades, the County pushed for conversion of septic tanks to central sewers, the use of reclaimed waste water for irrigation versus direct outfall into the Caloosahatchee, adoption of the Fertilizer Ordinance, construction of filtration marshes and purchase of land under the Conservation 2020 and Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed programs to store and filter storm water runoff.
Unfortunately, the greatest source of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, that are the catalyst for harmful algae blooms, including red tide and toxic blue green algae, is the polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee that flows down the Caloosahatchee and into our coastal estuaries. The nutrients enter Lake Okeechobee from surrounding agricultural drainage.
There are several ways that the Lee County Commission could substantially reduce the cost to Lee County taxpayers in meeting the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) requirements imposed by federal mandate to clean up our waterways:
1) Collaborate with Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties and Legislative Delegation to support legislation to implement the 1996 Polluter Pays Constitutional Amendment that requires those primarily responsible for pollution around Lake Okeechobee to clean up their pollution. The Legislature has deferred implementation of this public mandate thereby placing the financial burden of restoring impaired waters on the backs of the public taxpayers.
2) Coordinate with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to support a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) for Lake Okeechobee to include Nitrogen.
3) Coordinate with Congressional and Legislative delegation to support acquisition of 50,000 acres of land between the North New River and Miami canals and south of Lake Okeechobee for storage, treatment and conveyance of water to the Everglades, thereby, alleviating the massive discharge of polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee.
In violation of the public trust, the County Commissioners voted to raid the Conservation 2020 Trust Fund in the 2013-14 fiscal year to balance the budget. The Board is now considering further evisceration of the 2020 program by changing the focus of a land conservation program to a water quality program.
Prior to the shortsighted decision by the County Commissioners in 1991 to repeal the Water Conservation Utility, the County had a program in place to fund maintenance and restoration of waterways that would ensure compliance with state and federal water quality standards. The Lee County Commission should consider the most cost effective and resourceful means of reinstituting the water conservation utility versus undermining the Conservation 2020 program to comply with water quality mandate.
A potential source of funds for local water quality projects could be the repeal of the Okeechobee levy that is paid by Lee County taxpayers for the South Florida Water Management District to provide drainage and irrigation of the sugar cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee. Lee County taxpayers pay in excess of $30 million annually and the return on the investment is polluted water, fish kills, and harmful algae blooms including red tide. Certainly, the more conservative and responsible approach would be to redirect the funds for local beneficial use.
Ray Judah, a former Lee County commissioner, is the coordinator for the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition.