Flush with cash in state coffers, Florida lawmakers are pouring money into cleaning the mucky, polluted waters surrounding the Everglades.
But the Legislature is poised to adjourn May 2 without addressing some of the most persistent polluters of Florida’s lakes, rivers and springs after a contentious response from farmers, environmental groups, local governments and businesses.
Some argued the proposed regulations would impose too much cost on polluting industries at a time when the economy was struggling to regain steam. Environmental groups feared a watered-down response would set back their efforts to save Florida’s waterways. Lawmakers say the rules will get re-examined next year.
A wetter-than-usual rainy season last summer prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pump billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee water polluted by fertilizer-laden farmlands and development into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. That prompted stinky algae blooms and decimated tourism in those coastal communities.
Florida budget writers could steer more than $127 million into Everglades-related water projects designed to clean up the fouled lake waters flowing southward into the famed Everglades “River of Grass.”
That money would go toward building stormwater treatment centers, reservoirs and bridges to clean the water that streams into Lake Okeechobee, and re-routing it south through the Everglades.
“It’s very significant, and it’s going to have a tangible effect,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “The releases from Lake Okeechobee can be reduced and eventually eliminated.”
Right now, when the lake levels rise too high, federal managers have to discharge the dirty water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers flowing east and west.
“Because there’s no filtration system, it wrecks the economy and it wrecks the ecology of those communities,” said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation. “We’ve seen dead manatees, dead dolphins and dead fish in the Indian River Lagoon, and the oyster population has been ravaged.”
The state investment this year is a tiny fraction of the $2 billion in total South Florida water managers estimate will be required for complete Everglades restoration.
But it will go a long ways in undoing some of the damage, from restoring wetlands in the Picayune Strand in Naples to returning sea grasses, mangroves, removing muck, and building stormwater control projects in the Lake Worth Lagoon, experts say.
Oyster beds and seagrass beds in the coastal estuaries connected to the lake would get $2 million under the Senate plan to help bring them back from last summer’s devastation.
The projects are so interconnected that no single job rises to the top of the priority list, said James Moran, a South Florida Water Management District board member representing Palm Beach County.
“You can’t divorce one from the other,” Moran said.
Even so, environmentalists say the Upper Kissimmee River restoration might be the most important re-plumbing required. For years, the state and federal governments have been trying to return the river to its former winding and bending self, which “makes it more of a natural river than a canal down to Lake Okeechobee,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida.
Lawmakers want to spend $5 million there for water storage once the river’s original floodplain is restored. When it’s done, that will help filter the water before it gets there.
Lawmakers last year devoted $20 million to building a massive reservoir to store runoff from the lake, and they plan to add $40 million more this year.
The roughly $500 million project will still require a sizeable federal investment to become a reality, but once it does it would capture polluted water currently going into the Indian River Lagoon, store it, and clean it before it reaches the St. Lucie estuary.
Lawmakers also are steering $30 million into Gov. Rick Scott’s push to begin construction of 2.5 miles of additional bridges on the Tamiami Trail, the northern boundary of Everglades National Park.
The road now dams up water trying to flow southward into the park. The bridges would free up the water that now builds up in the central Everglades, allowing it to freely flow under the bridges, through the park, and on into Florida Bay.
A cadre of senators is still trying to pass reform forcing developers, water management districts, local governments with waste-water treatment plants, sugar farmers, and stakeholders to agree to plans to curb their pollution into Florida’s springs, rivers and lakes. It’s the only way, they argue, to keep future Mother Nature-induced disasters at bay.
But that effort has run into resistance from all sides, and will likely have to wait until next year when incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has committed to taking it on.
“Some people are so used to being adversaries with each other that it’s just hard for them to work together,” said Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican working on the bill. “The future of our economy — the future of agriculture, the future of homebuilding, the future of tourism — is dependent upon a clean environment.”
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