Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane is pleased and encouraged about the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie waterways freshwater releases after visiting with U.S. Congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3.
"It went really well," said Ruane. "I think they understand the situation better now. There probably will be another meeting with more of the Appropriations Committee members at some point. We only got to meet five or six out of 40 of them this time."
Ruane, Vice Mayor Doug Congress, Natural Resources director James Evans and Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter were invited to the Capitol by Representative Trey Raydel, who met with the Sanibel delegation and Congressman Tom Rooney, who represents Florida's 17th Congressional District and is a member of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations. Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker, Fort Myers Beach Mayor Alan Mandel and FMB Chamber president Bud Nocera also participated in the "South Florida Fly-In and Briefing."
Their goal is to convince federal lawmakers to authorize funding through the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) for short and long term solutions to correct environmental and economic harm being done by freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee to the east and west coasts.
"Over the past five weeks we have forged unique partnerships: bipartisan partnerships with both parties in Congress; bicoastal partnerships among our Florida delegation and partnerships between local governments and our Governor's office," Ruane added. "I do believe all of us working together toward the implementation, funding and construction of our short and long-term priorities are how we best serve the citizens of Sanibel, Florida and everyone who works in and visits southwest Florida."
The WRRDA bill already was passed by the U.S. Senate and is awaiting a vote by the U.S. House soon, perhaps even this week. The Committee of Appropriations sets the specific expenditures by the U.S. government for projects in the WRRDA bill.
"I think the bill will pass," said Ruane. "They are going in several directions right now, and they might even tie the bill to the debt ceiling debate."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) last month agreed to reduce the freshwater releases down the Caloosahatchee that has resulted in dark, tea-colored water along Fort Myers and Sanibel beaches and extending several miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. Just this week, on Tuesday, the COE announced a further reduction in the daily releases and normal green water appears to be returning to Sanibel beaches.
Water management capital projects recommended for funding in WRRDA include the $580 million C-43 West Basin Reservoir in Hendry County. The federal government is being asked to pay $297 million of that cost. The reservoir is designed to hold 55 billion gallons of water from the Caloosahatchee River during the rainy season in order to prevent nutrient-rich fresh water from causing harmful algae blooms, killing seagrasses and oyster beds downstream in the estuary.
Raydel promised the delegation that his will not be the only voice heard if the bill passes and the COE causes any more delays.
"I was skeptical about the meeting at first," said Congress. "I didn't know if we could accomplish something or not. At one time there were 20 or so Congress members present during the meetings. We got to meet individually with six or seven in their offices, mostly Florida delegates. It was good for us to get this national exposure."
At Tuesday's Sanibel Planning Commission meeting, chair Michael Valiquette commended the Mayor and Vice Mayor.
"I think it was amazingly successful," Valiquette said. "I've been up there before and you guys are to be congratulated for a job well done and I think the educated approach by Kevin is the way to go."
Kiker spoke at the briefing and called the water quality situation an "ongoing environmental calamity."
"The Caloosahatchee River and the estuary in Lee County is essential to the overall health of our beaches and to a great extent our economic viability," he said. "A clean and healthy environment is one of the most critical cogs of the economic engine that drives Lee County in its No. 1 industry, which is tourism."
Kiker then related visitors in direct relation to employment in Lee County. County officials were reported to having spent more than $350 million to obtain 28,000 acres in putting land into conservation.
"Statistics have shown that over 90 percent of the people that visit come for beaches and clean water," he said. "We live in an instant information age, and the image of black water along the beaches in Lee County has spread around the world in seconds. Unfortunately, that image stays with us for a long, long time. We're a very resilient community, but we need action now."
Nocera said the event received a "lot of traction" with 24 members of Congress, Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several members of the Florida legislature in attendance.
"The room was packed," he said. "I think the fact that it happened while the government was shut down gave it the ability to garner more attention and that is why more members of Congress attended."
Fort Myers Beach Bulletin/Observer editor Bob Petcher contributed to this report.