As Congress Budget Gridlock Continues, Parties Unite To Help Fla. Waterways

Oct 4, 2013

As the budget battle continues in Washington D.C., Democrats and Republicans are still at an impasse regarding the federal budget. But, a bipartisan group of Florida leaders came together Thursday on Capitol Hill to discuss an issue lawmakers from both parties can agree on: how to address the damage done to several Florida waterways due to water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

It’s no secret there’s been turmoil lately in Congress—and lawmakers know it’s weighing on the public.

“I’m sorry we’re in this position that we’re in, and in these times of incredible pessimism, I hope we can be a tiny ray of light—a hope of optimism,” said 19th District Florida Congressman Trey Radel.

Radel, a Republican, who with 18th District Democrat Patrick Murphy, led a panel briefing in Washington D.C. on how to save Florida’s local waterways. The two Florida freshmen lawmakers headed a group of Congressional, state, and local leaders who all weighed in about what could be done to help the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie estuary, in particular. The group included Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker, who talked about how polluted freshwater from Lake Okeechobee is affecting his area.

“It’s important that we realize the prolonged periods of excess freshwater or high levels of saltwater leads to adverse impacts to one of Florida’s most productive estuaries. A clean and healthy environment is one of the most critical cogs of economic engine that drives Lee County, which is tourism,” said Kiker.

Others, like Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard, painted an even starker picture.

“Our health department has posted signs warning our residents to avoid all contact with our water all Summer because the signs attest the water is toxic. We’ve had blue green algae, record numbers of dead dolphins, dead manatees, dead pelicans…,” said Heard.

Many, including Heard, also pleaded with Congressional leaders to make sure federal dollars are available to help repair the state’s ecosystems. They also asked for support for the Everglades Restoration plan, which includes pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

The Army Corps is responsible for releasing water from Lake Okeechobee to reduce pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike—parts of which date back to the 1930s.

But, Murphy says there’s more the Army Corps can do.

“I’ve been working with local agricultural leaders to explore innovative storage programs. We must also act on short-term solutions, such as moving as much water as possible out of the containment areas in the South to enable more water to flow from South of the lake and reassessing how much water can be held within Lake Okeechobee. Just last week, I sent a bipartisan letter to the Army Corp urging them to take these actions,” said Murphy.

The issue has also been a priority for Governor Rick Scott, who, like Radel, is calling on President Obama to tour areas affected by Lake Okeechobee water releases and make it one of his priorities. Meanwhile, in a statement, a presidential spokeswoman tells the News Service of Florida Mr. Obama is committed to Everglades restoration and rehabilitating the aging Herbert Hoover Dike. She also noted that four U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects expected to reduce the lake discharges await congressional approval.

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