Hours after Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane and Natural Resources director James Evans reported on details and progress in their efforts on the continuous damaging freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee, Florida Governor Rick Scott said the Corps of Engineers had decided to significantly reduce the flow of water into the South Florida estuaries.
At a hastily called special meeting of the Sanibel City Council on Wednesday, Ruane and Evans brought a nearly standing-room-only assembly of citizens in MacKenzie Hall up to speed on their endeavors of the past two weeks.
Ruane has met with Congressman Trey Radel, State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto, the Governor's Chief of Staff, Lee and Palm Beach County officials, Florida League of Cities, and members of the Senate Select Committee before whom he will testify today in Stuart.
Sanibel Natural Resources Department director James Evans points out causes and solutions sought in the area's fight against freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee.
"I haven't slept in my own bed for a week," Ruane said Wednesday. "I think we have a group of people and scientists to get to work on short term solutions to this problem. This has evolved in two short weeks, but it feels like two years."
Evans' power point presentation was precise and to the point.
"Lake O is at 15.7 feet today," Evans said. "This time last year it was 12.5 feet. We've had 140 to 170 percent above normal rainfall this summer, so all of the ground, all of the water storage lands are saturated. The only thing to do now is to release water south to the Everglades, which right now is most important."
Evans said the water quality is such right now that it impacts oysters and seagrasses. The low salinity due to the freshwater releases is in the lethal range.
"Oysters are dying and the seagrasses are washing up on the beaches," said Evans. "The dark water plume reduces sunlight to the seagrasses and they die off."
Lake O was designed to hold much more water than the current 15.7-foot level, but because the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake constructed more than 60 years ago is pourous and in danger of failing, water levels are managed at a much lower level. The dike is being reinforced, but it is a long, slow process that has many more years to go before completion.
"There are human health concerns right now," said Evans. "Although there are no warnings on the west coast, there are advisories and beach closures in effect in the St. Lucie area. Part of the reason we don't have closures here yet is the water travels more than 80 miles to get here, but much shorter in the St. Lucie River estuary."
Ruane has focused his message on the economic impact to businesses because of reduced tourisim.
"It's trickle down ecomonics for Lee County," said Ruane. "Tourism in Lee County is a $4.3 billion indursty supporting 85,000 jobs. This county gets $400 million from the bed tax and sales tax receipts. Lee and Collier counties boast $147 billion in real estate values with owners paying $1.9 billion a year in property taxes.
"The Governor has campaigned about jobs, which is not a partisan based issue," added Ruane. "We are coming out of one of the worst economic downturns in history. No one wants to go back to a downturn like that because of this."
Ruane provided testimony Thursday on the issue at an eight-hour meeting of the Florida Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin in Stuart. The committee is comprised of eight members chosen by Senate President Don Gaetz, including Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Southwest Florida.
Ruane testified regarding the significant, detrimental and economic impacts of the high flow regulatory discharges on Sanibel Island and the coastal waters of Lee County; the urgent need for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District to consider all short- and long-term storage options; the necessity of securing federal funding for the C-43 West Basin Reservoir Project in Hendry County and other long-term solutions; plus the importance of immediate ecological monitoring to determine the full impacts on the Caloosahatchee estuary.
"Our city's top priority must be to move the state and federal governments into fully implementing the long-term solutions to the Lake Okeechobee releases," said Ruane. "If the past years of rhetoric and debate do not quickly move these capital projects into implementation, we will have squandered our economy and the jobs and property values of every person in Southwest Florida."
Additionally, Ruane will address the tremendous economic impact of the releases on the area's businesses, residents and tourist destinations.
This is the first of an expected four hearings as the committee works toward a Nov. 4 deadline to submit a report of its findings to President Gaetz.
"I think state and federal government are getting the message," said Evans. "We aim to work with our east coast partners on releasing water south to the Everglades National Park and for the state to purchase 153,000 acres of US Sugar land south of Lake O to store more water. Even releasing water south to the Everglades is not a solution because the water is not clean enough. We need a system to clean the water before releasing it into the estuaries."
Governor Scott's statement late Wednesday indicates the Corps of Engineers immediately reduced the flow by 33 percent into the C-44 canal that leads to the Caloosahatchee River, and by week's end it will be reduced further, by as much as 57 percent. The announcement came one day after Scott visited the S-80 conrol structure in Martin County and committed $40 million toward the completion of the C-44 Storm Water Treatment Area project in Hendry County.
"I'm happy with what has transpired so far," said Ruane. "Sanibel always has taken an active role and it's important that we continue to be active in this."
Among comments from other council members came the Knute Rockne style remarks of councilman and former Mayor Marty Harrity.
"This is not our first time at the rodeo," he said. "We know what the problem is, now let's fix it. It all comes down to money. Let's start appropriating money - now! It has an impact on fishing and esthetics here. We're going to be Detroit if this continues. There's no reason for this. It's a disgrace."
When the meeting was turned over to public comments, everyone who spoke thanked the Mayor and Evans for their efforts. Some pledged financial support for forming a Save Our Beaches type organization to keep applying pressure to state and federal agencies to fund short and long term solutions.