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Area officials advocate for Southwest Florida in D.C.

July 31, 2018
By JESSICA SALMOND (jsalmond@breezenewspapers.com) , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

A conversation in the Capitol focused on Florida last week.

The South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force is a 14-member committee established in 1996 with the Water Resources Development Act. It meets to connect four "sovereign" entities, the Army Corps, the South Florida Water Management District, the tribal entities of Southwest Florida and the state and federal government to relay information about the many related projects in the Everglades restoration efforts.

The meeting, held Wednesday, had some local representation.

Several south Florida residents attended the meeting in person, including South Florida Clean Water Movement leader John Heim.

"What the public sector is seeing is mismanagement. When you go down to the river and see miles of blue green algae, that spells mismanagement," Heim said during public comment. "What we're dealing with now is the ramifications of the toxic releases."

Heim's request that could see immediate action was to reduce freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee to under 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The Corps' "target" was 3,000 cfs over a 14-day average, which started with three days of no releases followed by several days of 4,400 cfs releases before ratcheting down to 3,000. He said he'd also like to see the state stop blaming the federal government, or vice versa, and focus on fixing the problems.

"We're looking for accountability, trust, not having to come all the way to D.C. to express to people we feel are failing us back home," he said. "We want the state and federal level to work together."

Florida Congressman Brian Mast, District 18 (R.), also spoke. He wanted to hear what exactly the lowest level the lake could reach before the entities who request water would stop getting it - like agricultural industries.

"If all of this is about managing risk, but we're keeping the like at an artificially high level but we're sending them their water, then that is management that needs to be adjusted," Mast said. "My community is receiving the effects of the toxic algae we had no part in producing."

City of Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane is a member of the task force, and gave a presentation to show the rest of the committee the reality of the Caloosahatchee: bright blue-green toxic algae clogging its canals and rivers.

"I've been at this job for 12 years," Ruane said. "It's the worst I've ever seen these conditions."

In 2016, record rains led to toxic algae blooms heavily on the east coast, and also affecting the west coast. In 2017, Hurricane Irma hit. Now, in 2018, the blooms are hitting the west coast again, and worse this time - and in addition, Sanibel and other areas have suffered from a red tide bloom for almost a year.

"We're a tourist state, we make a lasting impression," Ruane said. "We're in a fragile position on the verge of putting southwest Florida into a recession."

Ruane is well-versed in the intricate aspects of the many different Everglades restoration programs. He told his fellow committee members he knows the Caloosahatchee River has watershed issues as well, but the Lake Okeechobee releases only compound the issue. And, the excessive freshwater releases have fed the red tide in the Gulf. Lessening the releases would help the red tide recede.

He also pointed out that the Corps violated the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS) during the spring this year, by withholding releases.

The Caloosahatchee needs freshwater releases in the dry months to maintain the brackish water of the estuary; despite requests for the Corps to release more water earlier this year, the Corps declined. In a previous Observer article, spokesman John Campbell said the reason was that meteorological predictions were showing a dry summer - a prediction that was sharply reversed in May, which was the wettest May on record for decades.

"As the mayor of a small town, you don't walk any place where someone doesn't talk to you about the water," he said.

Comments caused task force chair, Susan Combs, to take some action during the meeting.

After hearing the concerns from Mast about the needed releases during the dry season, she said she wanted to form a subcommittee to start a conversation about how dry season release schedules could be altered. She directed a member of the committee to compile a group and meet by Aug. 10.

"I don't think we can fix it today, but I think this conversation should continue," she said. "Water management affects lives, businesses and health."

Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith sits on the committee as well; after seeing Ruane's photos, he said the west coast was experiencing what his coast went through during the 2016 algal blooms.

"Those photos are reminiscent of how god-awful things were in 2016," he said. "We feel your pain, we'll do anything we can to help you."

But the east coast is still dealing with the consequences of the freshwater run-offs.

The west coast has had a red tide bloom for almost a year, fueled by excessive freshwater coming from the Caloosahatchee River. The east coast doesn't have red tide, but Martin said it's undergoing a massive coral reef die-off. The reef, which starts at the southern end of Martin County and wraps down around the Florida Keys, is infected and has experienced a 50 percent loss, he said.

"Our nutrient loading in the estuary and river, now on the reef, is what's causing so much harm," Smith said. "The coral reef tract is dying at an accelerated rate with unprecedented disease."

 
 
 

 

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