SWFL, state elected leaders respond to algae, red tide crisis

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The Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, July 31, 2017. Most Senate Democrats and independents said Aug. 1, that upcoming legislation to rewrite the tax code should make sure the middle class doesn’t pay more. They won’t support any upcoming GOP effort to overhaul the U.S. tax code that delivers tax cuts to “the top 1 percent” or adds to the government’s $20 trillion debt. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Algae and red tide are plaguing the water ways of Southwest Florida.

WINK News reached out to 16 officials in Southwest Florida’s delegation to ask what they’re doing to make waterways cleaner. The following elected officials have responded:

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto

Sen. Benacquisto provided the following information:

“Like everyone in Southwest Florida I am extremely concerned about the quality of the water in the Caloosahatchee Estuary, and especially the algae blooms that are currently plaguing Lee County. We have continued to fund water storage projects like the C-43 reservoir, which will hold water from the devastating Lake Okeechobee releases. Additionally the Senate pushed through SB 10 to build a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area to move as much water south of the lake as possible, and not to our coastal community.

Additionally, the Lee County Delegation insisted that the Army Corps of Engineers discontinue Lake Okeechobee releases until there are no algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River or estuary. Revisiting the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS) is an integral part of short and long-term solutions and we strongly suggested that the Corps accelerate that timeline.

We also successfully requested that Governor Scott declare a state of emergency in Lee County. This week the DEP awarded grant money to enter into a contract with Lee County to clean up the algae from the water, which will begin tomorrow and will begin to bring much needed relief to our community.”

State Rep. Matt Caldwell

Rep. Caldwell’s office provided a link to his website.

State Rep. Dane Eagle

Rep. Eagle provided the following information:

“The Lee County Legislative Delegation held a conference call briefing with DEP today, which I organized as chairman. This was an update and part of our ongoing efforts to address this unprecedented fresh-water algal bloom. Just yesterday DEP granted the county $700,000 for the cleanup efforts, which was made possible though the State of Emergency issued by Gov. Scott at the Delegation’s request. Physical cleanup of the waterways will begin tomorrow.”

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart

Rep. Diaz-Balart’s office provided the following information highlighting his work on the water crisis:

“-$61 million for the Cooperative Matching Funds program, which allows State, Tribal, and local partners to collaborate and respond to water issues, including $1.25 million in the Water Availability and Use Science Program (for water availability assessments) , and an additional $819,000 in the National Water Quality Program for these State, Tribal, and local partners to monitor and forecast algal blooms and algal toxins.

-$91 million for the National Water Quality Program, which tracks water-quality conditions and its progress over time, including $2.81 million for the monitoring of algal blooms.

-$94.56 million for Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Research program. The Committee directed the EPA to coordinate federal research efforts given algal blooms are present in coastal and inland waters like those in Florida.

Additionally, Diaz-Balart also supported an amendment sponsored by Rep. Soto that would increase funding for the National Estuary Program by $468,000, which protects and restores water quality and ecological health of estuaries.”

State Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen 

Sen. Fitzenhagen provided the following information:

“I have been running on clean water since I started my pursuit of being an elected official —even before it was a problem. That includes education, like working with Captains for Clean Water, and John Heim, from the Southwest Florida Clean Water Movement. 

I was the sole co-sponsor for many months of the house version of Senate Bill 10, and I am paying to show the movie, “Toxic Puzzle,” along with a panel of experts, who will take questions after the film. 

I also flew to Tallahassee to meet with AECOM Engineering Firm about algae removal.”

State Sen. Denise Grimsley

Sen. Grimsley’s office provided the following information:

“Senator Grimsley supported authorizing and funding increased storage south of Lake Okeechobee in 2017 and moving more water into the Everglades. She has also championed funding for clean up for Lake Okeechobee and storage north of the Lake.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson

Sen. Nelson’s office provided the following information:

  • “On July 26, 2018, Nelson introduced an amendment to the Senate’s spending bill that would open the door to federal assistance for states and local communities hardest hit by the toxic slime.
  • On July 12, 2018, Nelson introduced legislation aimed at helping small business owners impacted by the toxic algal blooms plaguing South Florida’s waterways. The legislation would authorize the Secretary of Treasury to designate areas that experience significant economic hardship due to the presence of a toxic algae bloom as “Toxic Algae Zones.” Once designated, a small business operating in one of these Toxic Algae Zones would be able claim a tax deduction for any loss of earnings due to the bloom.
  • On July 10, 2018, Nelson sent a letter to the CDC to provide the people of South Florida with detailed information on the short and long-term health effects associated with the toxic algae blooms that are plaguing Lake Okeechobee and the local waterways.
  • On June 11, 2018, the Army Corps released its annual spending plan for the current fiscal year. Included in the plan were several projects that Nelson pushed for, including $3.5 million to initiate and complete design for C-23/C-24 north reservoir and $82 million for Herbert Hoover Dike.
  • On June 21, 2018, Nelson cosponsored an amendment to the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act expressing support for support for funding water quality features as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
  • On June 5, 2018, Nelson called on Senate leaders to include the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project in this year’s Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
  • On April 27, 2018, Nelson urged the Army Corps to begin design work on the C-23/C-24 reservoir during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, to keep the project on track as it’s currently scheduled.
  • On March 26, 2018, Nelson joined Senator Rubio in leading a delegation letter to the Army Corps urging the Corps to expedite review of the SFWMD’s plan so that it could be ready for authorization in the upcoming Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bill.
  • On March 22, 2018, the Senate passed a spending bill that included funding for a number of projects Nelson pushed for, including $76.5 million in total funding to protect and restore the Everglades and $82 million to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike. The U.S. Army Corps budget was also increased, allowing for additional funding for dike repairs and additional funding for Everglades restoration.
  • On Feb. 12, 2018, the president released a fiscal year 2019 federal budget that would force Floridians to contribute $200 million towards the federal project comes just days after Congress approved a massive disaster funding bill that gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers $10.4 billion to use on projects such as the dike – more than enough to cover the $776.4 million the Corps says it needs to finish the project by 2022.
  • On Feb. 9, 2018, Nelson sent a letter to President Trump requesting full funding for Everglades restoration projects and Herbert Hoover Dike in his FY2019 budget request.
  • On Feb. 8, 2018, the Senate approved a massive two-year government spending bill that included funding Nelson pushed for ($10.4 billion) for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use for construction projects in states impacted by the hurricanes, such as the Herbert Hoover Dike. Nelson pushed for months for the funding to be included.
  • On May 19, 2017, Nelson sent a letter to President Trump urging him to include in his FY18 budget request the funding needed to speed up the work being done on the Herbert Hoover Dike and complete the project three years ahead of schedule.
  • On May 18, 2017, Nelson sent a letter with Sen. Rubio inviting Secretary Zinke to visit the Everglades in his new capacity as Secretary of the Interior.
  • In 2017, Nelson introduced legislation to amend the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act. Nelson’s bill would authorize the use of $110 million over a five year period for research into the causes and control of large algae blooms and hypoxia, formally add the Army Corps of Engineers to the algae bloom and hypoxia Task Force, and establish a process for the Administrator of NOAA or EPA to declare an Event of National Significance, which is similar to a fishery disaster and would trigger access to disaster-like funds in the case of a severe algae bloom or hypoxic event.
  • On May 5, 2017, Nelson introduced the Everglades for the Next Generation Act, a bill to amend the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 to provide for expedited project implementation relating to the comprehensive Everglades restoration plan.
    • He introduced this same bill in 2012, 2013, and 2016.
  • On April 17, 2017, Nelson sent a letter to Senate appropriators urging them to increase funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up work on the Herbert Hoover Dike and complete the project by 2022, instead of 2025.
  • On July 6, 2016, Nelson sent a letter to Senate leadership urging the Senate take up WRDA, which included authorization for the Central Everglades Planning Project.
  • On June 29, 2016, Nelson sent a letter to the Corps urging both short and long-term actions to address algae blooms, including raising L-29 to allow more water to flow south.
  • On March 24, 2016, Nelson sent a letter to Secretaries Vilsack and Jewell requesting a doubling of the investment in the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge.
  • On Feb. 2, 2016, Nelson sent a letter to President Obama requesting $200 million in Everglades funding in FY2017 budget.
  • On Jan. 8, 2015, Nelson introduced a bill to amend the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 to authorize the Central Everglades Planning Project.
  • In 2015, Nelson joined Rubio in filing S.124 to de-authorize the Ten Mile Creek Water Preserve Area. [This project was de-authorized as part of the FY2016 omnibus.]
  • On Nov. 25, 2014, Nelson-led a delegation letter urging President Obama to include Everglades funding in his FY2016 budget request.
  • On Sept. 18, 2014, Nelson introduced a bill to authorize the Central Everglades Planning Project, Florida, as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
  • On April 23, 2014, Nelson and the Florida delegation sent a letter to WRDA 2014 conferees reiterating support for Everglades projects.
  • In 2014, Nelson successfully shepherded the reauthorization of the the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research Control Act [Public Law 113-124] through Congress, which authorized $82 million for research to help battle toxic algae outbreaks.
  • On Oct. 27, 2009, Nelson cosponsored the Natural Resources Climate Adaptation Act to establish an integrated Federal program that protects, restores, and conserves natural resources by responding to the threats and effects of climate change.
  • On July 30, 2008, Nelson introduced the Refuge Ecology Protection, Assistance, and Immediate Response Act to protect, conserve, and restore native fish, wildlife, and their natural habitats at national wildlife refuges through cooperative, incentive-based grants to control, mitigate, and eradicate harmful nonnative plant species, and for other purposes.
  • On July 26, 2008, Nelson cosponsored the Everglades National Park Land Exchange Act of 2008 to provide for the resolution of several land ownership and related issues with respect to parcels of land located within the Everglades National Park.
  • On June 16, 2008, Nelson introduced the Everglades National Park Boundary Adjustment Act of 2008 to adjust the boundary of the Everglades National Park in Florida to include the Tarpon Basin property.
  • On May 20, 2008, Nelson cosponsored the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2007 to direct the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a program to decrease emissions of greenhouse gases, and for other purposes.
  • On Jan. 22, 2007, Nelson introduced Restoring the Everglades, an American Legacy Act of 2007 to authorize ecosystem restoration projects for the Indian River Lagoon-South and the Picayune Strand, Collier County, in Florida.
    • He also introduced this act in 2005, and cosponsored it in 2004.
  • On July 27, 2006, Nelson introduced a bill to require the Secretary of the Army to conduct a federal study on the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike system. (This bill was passed as part of the 2007 WRDA bill that was signed into law.)
  • On September 15, 2004, Nelson cosponsored a bill to authorize the exchange of certain land in Everglades National Park.”

State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo

Sen. Passidomo provided the following information:

“I have received a number of emails on both issues so our Lee County legislative delegation held a conference call with DEP and FWC today regarding the algae blooms and the red tide issue.

What many people don’t know is that the algae blooms and red tide are two separate events….two separate issues and one has no relationship to the other. The algae problem is due to fresh water being flushed into the estuaries as releases are made from Lake O. As you probably know we are working on a number of projects to address that. Below is information I recently submitted to the NABOR newsletter regarding the algae blooms. Also, attached is information provided by the Florida Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation that outlines what the state is doing to address the algae problem. Also, in our telephone conference today we discussed some of the local efforts that will help mitigate this particular outbreak such as the fertilizer ban in Lee County that has been in place since Jun 1; the efforts to educate homeowners and landscape companies on lawn care (such as making sure grass cuttings aren’t blown into the storm drains). Funding of $3M has been set aside for algae clean up with $700,000 already appropriated for Lee County. There are also plans to replant sea grass and new oyster beds, to name a few.

The red tide is a salt water organism. Apparently, there is generally a red tide event every year but it mainly stays offshore. One of the worst events was in 2005 but it stayed offshore. This event is unusual since it has come ashore due to weather conditions. DEP and FWC have been tracking the current red tide bloom since last November. It began offshore but strengthened as it came onshore…winds, currents, etc. causing the problem. I specifically asked if there was anything we could do to stop it or slow it down. I was advised that it is naturally occurring and there is nothing we can do to either prevent or abate it. I also asked that if we didn’t have the blue-green algae problem would we still have the red tide issue. I was advised that we would have the red tide issue irregardless of the algae issue since one has nothing to do with the other. I asked if there is any way to tell when this bloom will end and was advised there is no scientific indicators as to when the red tide bloom is expected to end, particularly since this current bloom is actually out of the regular “red tide season” which generally occurs in the fall. (That’s the bad news since once this bloom dissipates there is likely to be another in the normal course of nature. Hopefully that will stay offshore).

With regard to marine life, we are told that there should be no long term impact.

Blue-green Algae:

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) blooms, caused by a combination of several different environmental factors including elevated nutrient levels and warmer temperatures, are influenced by a host of variables in our state’s water system. To address this problem, the Florida Legislature has funded and implemented several programs.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers discharges water from Lake Okeechobee to ensure the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. This Dike protects Floridians living in South Florida from deadly storm surge and flooding. Unfortunately, oftentimes these discharges contribute to blue-green algae blooms by lowering the salinity levels in our estuaries. The Legislature has taken several measures to address this issue, most recently by passing SB10 in 2017, which allocates $64 million annually towards the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project and creates an additional 240,000 acre-feet of water storage. This will reduce the need for discharges and help maintain lower lake levels. Additionally, the Legislature has directed that the construction of a water storage reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area be expedited and has allocated $128 million over the last two years to this project, which will also reduce the amount of freshwater that flows into the estuary systems and create a 6,500 acre stormwater treatment area.

The Legislature in 2016 increased annual funding to a minimum of $200 million annually to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program for the purposes of improving water quality and storage in our Everglades system. Additionally, with the $100 million the state has allocated to rehabilitation of the dike, the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation will be completed by 2023. The Legislature has also contributed over $200 million to the Kissimmee River Restoration Project, which is nearing completion and will attenuate the amount of water flowing into Lake Okeechobee by restoring more than 12,000 acres of wetlands.

The blue-green algae that has so heavily impacted our state’s natural resources and caused Governor Scott to declare a state of emergency has not occurred overnight. It is the result of decades of modifications in water usage and flows, alterations to natural water storage areas, and increased agricultural activity. The Florida legislature is committed to preserving our delicate natural environment and improving our water quality. But, just as the problem did not occur overnight, the solution will take time. The projects mentioned above are just a few of the many projects that the legislature has approved and funded, and as we move forward with these projects, we will continue to find ways to improve our state’s water quality.”

State Rep. Bob Rommel

Rep. Rommel  provided the following information:

“For years now we have been battling water quality issues here in Southwest Florida. We have two totally different issues, the green algae blooms and red tide. Currently there are multiple projects underway to help with the algae blooms and it looks like we are finally getting some federal dollars to help complete those projects that will strength the Dyke at Lake O and help restore water flow south. Those projects will take between 5 to 7 years so there is no quick fix, but there is a plan and now it seems money too.

Red tide is a totally different issue, red tide has been happening for years but it does not normally happens as sever or in such a mass area this close to the coast. I large portion of our economy is tourism and I have talked to many business owners that have seen large decreases in their business because of water quality. I will be asking the governor’s office if we can give some of these business temporally relief for those that have been negatively impacted. Many are still recovering from Hurricane Irma and if this continues much longer it could be considered another natural disaster.”

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney

Rep. Rooney’s office provided the following information:

“It is important that all levels of government, Federal, State, and local, work together in the short term to redirect as much water as possible from Lake Okeechobee to the south. This will reduce harmful discharges into the Caloosahatchee River and stop destroying our estuaries and bays.

Unfortunately for all of us, for 18 years, since 2000, Congress has failed to deliver on building out the projects authorized in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), or in completing repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike which would permit retention of more water in the lake and avoid massive discharges into the Caloosahatchee. In 18 months of working in Congress I have been laser-focused on our water quality in Southwest Florida, and have worked hard to find every possible avenue of funding to complete CERP projects and expedite completion of the dike repairs – and we are now getting results.

In July, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced an expedited timeline for repair of the Herbert Hoover Dike. I met personally with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney a couple of weeks ago and urged him to direct funds from the hurricane disaster relief program to the Herbert Hoover Dike repair project.

Joined with $206 million recently appropriated by the House, a total of $514 million will be set aside to complete the dike repairs by 2022 instead of the end of the decade. Every year saved completing these repairs is a year that harmful releases into our ecosystem will stop sooner.

In addition to the dike, I have successfully fought for funding to complete CERP projects. We have united the Florida delegation like never before and I have personally brought House leadership to Southwest Florida to see the watershed first hand. Now we are seeing results here, as well – a record $115 million set aside for CERP in the FY2019 budget. With these dollars, construction will begin on the EAA reservoir to store water south of the lake and move it into the treatment basins and ultimately into Florida Bay. Several projects which are nearly complete, including the Picayune Strand, will finally be finished. Although these recent successes at the federal level will not solve our water quality issues as quickly as we all want, they will solve them PERMANENTLY.

To manage the immediate damage being caused by releases from the lake, our office has been in contact with the Office of Management and Budget to assess where additional disaster funds could be available to address current algae related issues. We have also contacted the National Institutes of Health to determine courses of action for any health issues that may arise. Lastly, we are pursuing, with the Small Business Administration, resources for the many family run businesses suffering economic loss. We are aggressively investigating all opportunities to address environmental, economic and health effects that are arising due to current conditions.

Years of neglect and inaction by Washington’s career politicians have put us behind and added to our problems. I am encouraged by what we have accomplished in the last 18 months, and will continue to fight every day for a healthy environment and vibrant Southwest Florida economy.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

Sen. Rubio’s office provided the following information:

“An extended list of his work is available here.

Just yesterday, the Senate passed his amendment that ensures a minimum of $5 million for the EPA to investigate harmful algal toxins and $200,000 for USGS to find ways to diminish toxicity levels.

You can read more here about the amendment.”

WINK News has not received an answer from the following elected leaders:

  • State Rep. Byron Donalds
  • State Rep. Michael J. Grant
  • State Rep. Ray Rodrigues
  • U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney
  • State Rep. Greg Steube

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