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Congressman Rooney brings federal, state officials to see toxic blooms

August 16, 2018
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

Paradise Marina in North Fort Myers sounds like it should be a pretty Floridian place to visit.

But Wednesday afternoon, swirls of lime green and clumps of blue in the water exuded the smell of manure.

"It really stinks," said Francis Rooney, U.S. Representative District 19.

Article Photos

Congressman Francis Rooney speaks with the media during a press conference on Wednesday at Newton Beach Park, Fort Myers Beach.

Jessica Salmond

Wednesday, he was joined at several stops by officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Interior, as well as state agencies, the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

"We all understand the magnitude," Rooney said. "We have partners in the federal and state levels who understand our plight."

The 11 officials accompanied Rooney on a central Florida scenic tour; it began at the Herbert Hoover Dike in Clewiston. Paradise Marina was the second stop.

Captain Ray Bixler was at the marina when Rooney arrived; he didn't know the Congressman would visit, but said the tour "couldn't hurt."

Bixler moved to Cape Coral in April from Missouri. He lives in Marinatown, which he said wasn't as bad, but knows friends at Paradise Marina.

"Any response from a politician, you're striking a chord somewhere," he said. "I bet if they put themselves in our shoes, it would be cleaned up (faster)."

The final stop on the scenic tour was Newton Beach Park on Fort Myers Beach. While the dead marine life was absent, the respiratory effects of red tide were still prevalent - those in attendance broke interviews with coughs and sneezes.

"It's always painful to see the environmental impact, but invigorating to see the partnership," said Noah Valenstein, FDEP Secretary. "With the blue-green algae, we've got to get the dike fixed. With the flip of a switch, the saltwater estuary turns to freshwater."

Rooney said he wanted to show exactly what was happening to leaders of government, and bring visibility to those who are being hurt by the water quality issues in Florida. He said the Department of Interior and EPA will take what they've seen back to Washington to search for solutions.

Rooney mentioned Gov. Rick Scott's states of emergency and said he and others are working on finding out what can be done for businesses and individuals who are being economically slapped by the blooms, as well as getting grant funding to help with the clean-up.

Leaders discussed the importance of continuing to acquire funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP) projects, which will eventually reduce the need for the Army Corps to release water east and west from Lake Okeechobee.

"CERP is the world's largest aquatic restoration program," said Col. Jason Kirk, Army Corps District Commander. "Every project provides us with better options."

Rooney said he's keeping a "laser" focus on water quality, and on keeping federal and state partners in communication and working together. It was one of his main campaign platforms when he was elected.

The group also held a closed-door meeting with local business and tourism leaders to hear more about the economic impact. Leaders from the Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Fort Myers and Bonita Springs chambers attended, along with the Visitors and Convention Bureau and Dan Andrews from Captains for Clean Water.

Jacki Liszak, Chamber president, said it was a good chance for the officials to hear about real-life experiences and real numbers. Her chamber has been collecting economic impact statements from island businesses, and she read off some of the numbers. She said other chambers asked for the best ways to explain to their members what's happening and how they can help, because those are the most common questions they're getting.

Liszak specifically asked the officials to find grant money for local businesses - not small business loans. A 90-day loan with a 16 percent interest rate will kick in in October, which is still considered one of the slower months, she said.

"Those are not going to help anybody. They need real assistance, and not loan-shark rates," she said.

It was productive to have the officials there, hearing from people whose lives are dependent on the water - Liszak said it was good for the five chamber presidents to be able to stand together with a united message: "we need solutions, and we can't wait years."

"Each of us got the chance to talk about their area and what they're experiencing, and put a human face on it," she said. "They got an eye, an ear and a nose full today."



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