2018-03-01 / Spotlight News

Panelists call for federal movement on Florida water agreement

By Don Manley

The protection of southern Florida waterways is discussed at a presentation by Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation, Rep. Francis Rooney and Rob Moher, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. The protection of southern Florida waterways is discussed at a presentation by Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation, Rep. Francis Rooney and Rob Moher, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Building several key components of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan is essential to restoring the health of the Caloosahatchee River and the 1.5 million-acre “river of grass” to its south. That was the consensus of three experts on southern Florida’s waterways during a panel discussion on the Everglades and the periodic release of Lake Okeechobee’s foul-smelling, dark waters into the Caloosahatchee River and the algae blooms, red tide and bacteria in local waters that kill aquatic wildlife and hurt the economy.

Held recently at FineMark National Bank and Trust in North Naples, the event featured Rep. Francis Rooney, Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation, and Rob Moher, presi­dent and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. The moderator was Adria Starkey, FineMark’s president for Collier County.

“Everywhere, everybody knows that water is a crucial issue,” she said. “Clean water is so important to all of us. We hear about it. We talk about it. It’s becoming a buzzword around the world. It’s not just Florida.”

About 40 people attended the invitation-only discussion, which Starkey kicked off with a historical overview of the region’s waterways after the creation of the Herbert Hoover Dike around “Lake O” 80 years ago.

The earthen levee was built after the 1928 hurricane that killed at least 3,000 people when Okeechobee’s waters overflowed its boundaries. Flood control measures included dredging, widening and straightening the Caloosahatchee, and expand­ing it from its original start near Labelle, to connect to the lake.

The river serves as a discharge outlet for when Lake O’s waters reach depths of 15 to 16 ½ feet, due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concerns about the dike’s stability.

Other changes to the natural flow of south Florida waters connected to Lake Okeechobee include the widening and straightening of the Kissimmee River to the north, and the St. Lucie River to the east, which in each case is done by blasting millions of gallons of water into the lake during heavy rains.

Ultimately, the Everglades and its delicate ecosystem no longer receive the amount of freshwater from the north that sustained it, historically, resulting in increased salinity in Florida Bay which kills off the seagrass that provides essential habitat for aquatic life.

The creation of U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail, added insult to injury by blocking the natural north-south flow of water.

“You have three estuaries that are out of whack, too much water to the north and not enough to the south,” said Eikenberg.

However, remedies that would restore what nature originally devised for southern Florida’s waterways is the goal of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, the joint federal and state of Florida initiative approved by Congress in 2000.

CERP consists of 68 projects that carry an estimated price tag of more than $16 billion today. Completion is expected in 2030, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Included among the projects is the reconstruction of the dike, the raising of some portions of U.S. 41 and the creation of two large reservoirs to store and filter discharged water: one just south of the lake and the other to be built near Labelle.

Rooney said the state has done its part in providing money for the work, but the federal government has been lagging behind, which he said is something he’s fighting to change.

“It’s an extraordinarily complex problem to deal with and to try and articulate to Congress members, but that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said. “The long and short answer is we’ve got to get the money to get these projects done as soon as we possibly can, hopefully in the mid-2020s and not the early 2030s, and stop the harmful discharges that scour out the Caloosahatchee.”

The fact that groups such as The Everglades Foundation, the Conservancy, the Audubon Society, the South Florida Water Management District and the Corps of Engineers all view CERP as critical and have communicated their positions to federal officials helps his drive to secure federal funds, said Rooney.

“Part of our problem here is nothing’s cheap,” he added. “it’s all in the hundreds of millions of dollars for these projects.”

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