Senate Select Committee takes on Florida water issues

UPDATE: SEPT. 16, 2013 – Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin – Meeting scheduled for September 24, 2013 – 4:00 —5:30 p.m.
View meeting notice here.  View expanded agenda here.

A new state group, the Senate Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin, has been assembled to tackle a complicated water problem.

Excess rainfall has caused Lake Okeechobee to rise at an alarming rate, which authorities say puts the Herbert Hoover Dike in danger of leaking. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the historic gatekeeper of lake levels, decided to release large quantities of water from the lake this summer into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries after the lake reached a certain level. After the water was released, residents to the east and west protested the harmful effects on waters valued by their communities.

As part of the committee’s strategy to determine long- and short-term remedies, which it is to recommend to the Senate Committees on Appropriations, Environmental Preservation and Conservation, and Agriculture on Nov. 13, Senate President Don Gaetz called a variety of parties together in August. Experts in science, engineering, agriculture and other fields, as well as the general public, met to discuss their concerns and offer their recommendations.

The committee asked for input that would help them to accomplish four tasks:

-       Review historic and current state and federal basin-wide water management policies and activities, including the discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon

-       Assess the impact of current water release activities and evaluate the results of environmental priorities in the basin

-       Identify options for state and federal action to improve basin-wide water management, including alternatives for discharges from Lake Okeechobee

-       Develop recommendations for improved water management

Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Negron worked to keep the focus of the meeting on short-term solutions as a critical first step. He urged those present to offer ideas that would deal with the quantity of water being discharged from Lake Okeechobee that the Corps said was needed to prevent breaching the dike. Negron urged Col. Alan Dodd, district commander of the Corps in Jacksonville, to re-evaluate how high the lake should be to require discharges.

“The 2008 risk assessment, used by the Army Corps of Engineers to determine the release schedules, needs to be reviewed,” Negron said. “We need to take a look, re-evaluate, regroup, make sure the assessment is based on the latest evidence, balancing the risk of overflow against the certainty of what has happened in our communities,” he said. Negron questioned the wisdom of “the federal bureaucracy having exclusive jurisdiction to decide what water pours into our community.”

Around the time of the meeting, the Corps did cut back on releases because of rainfall was less frequent.

A recurring point made at the eight-hour meeting was that more state and federal funding was needed to develop alternative water-storage solutions and to find solutions to the threat of nitrogen runoff from septic tanks. Negron asked the South Florida Water Management District to investigate every available water storage solution that would help keep water out of east/west routes.

Ideas presented at the meeting included raising the water level in canals in the Everglades Agricultural Area, urging the governor to declare a state of emergency, contracting with area farmers and ranchers to retain water on their land – which is already being done, installing a boom across the Indian River Lagoon to prevent water from the estuary from moving north into the waterway, and pumping ocean water into the estuary to increase salinity levels to prevent further damage to oysters, wildlife and sea grasses.

“We know there are short-term actions available, and we now have several substantive proposals to consider,” Negron said. “The next step is to develop recommendations for legislative action, which we hope will provide relief to these communities as soon as possible.”

A week after the meeting, Gov. Rick Scott announced he intended to ask lawmakers to approve $30 million for three years — a total of $90 million — to help the National Park Service build a 2.6-mile bridge over the Tamiami Trial in Miami-Dade County so water can flow south to Everglades National Park.

“Every drop of water that we can send south and keep out of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries is a win for Florida families,” Scott said.

Details regarding future meetings will be announced soon. For additional information on the Senate Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin, visit the committee’s website.

View a video of the Aug. 22 meeting here.

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