Interim Committees Review Environmental Efforts

More than $220 million in state funding was proposed last week in the Florida Senate to store and move water leaving Lake Okeechobee and keep it out of estuaries to the east and west of the lake.

The Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin on Friday, November 8 released its final report summarizing the select committee’s investigation of policies, spending, and other governmental activities affecting water management in the region.

The select Committee began meetings this past summer when residents from Palm Beach to Brevard counties on Florida’s east coast, and in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties to the west experienced such a tremendous and noticeable drop in water quality in the rivers, estuaries and open waters.  The water is some regions was so fouled that local health departments warned people to keep themselves and their pets from coming into contact with it.

The releases of fouled water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers by far had the most damaging effect on coastal water quality, so efforts have begun to address a comprehensive list of short and long-term solutions.  The effort aims to improve the environmental and economic health of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River systems and the Indian River Lagoon, all of which were devastated by months of catastrophic water conditions.

The select committee identified a number of policy and budget options for state and federal action to improve water management in both the short and long-term. The options focus on three key areas: (1) improving water quality; (2) expanding water storage capacity; and (3) strengthening the current relationship between the state and federal government by clarifying areas of responsibility and working to improve accountability.

The $220 million in state funding proposed in the report includes increased funding for the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs as well as sediment removal and dredging in the central and northern Indian River Lagoon. Recommendations outline water management options that would further increase current storage and flow capacities by billions of gallons.

Additionally, the committee identified a number of areas where the federal government has fallen short on its obligations to maintain the Lake Okeechobee Herbert Hoover Dike and to develop a water release schedule that balances the improved structural integrity of the dike with the overall environmental and economic health of the region. To address this tension, the report recommends amending the operational jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to give the State of Florida, specifically the Department of Environmental Protection, authority over regulatory releases.

Finally, the report notes evaluation of efforts and ideas to improve southerly flow should continue so any plan may be considered at such a time that a financial commitment from the federal government becomes more probable, stating “Any plan that has the potential to store, treat and move enough water south from the lake to eliminate damaging discharges should be considered.”  The Select Committees efforts will now be taken up by the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation.