Lake Okechobee boat outing, from:”Florida: A Winter Playground”; The Outing Magazine, Jan. 1909

Lake Okechobee boat outing, from:”Florida: A Winter Playground”; The Outing Magazine, Jan. 1909

After 20 years of delays, legislative bickering and opposition by the agricultural industry, Governor Rick Scott signed a bold piece of legislation, SB10, meant to help restore the Everglades and stop polluted water in Lake Okeechobee from pouring into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, on May 9th.

The centerpiece of the comprehensive $1.5 billion project is a deep-water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to store and clean water, a move that will prevent toxic discharges from polluting the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Those water discharges can cause devastating environmental and economic harm to the delicate estuaries and coastal communities near those two rivers. It was just such an event last summer that sparked the public outrage and grassroots activism that was needed to push for change.

Last year, a foul-smelling slick of toxic blue-green algae drained out of Lake Okeechobee and flooded into the Caloosahatche and St. Lucie rivers – choking coastlines, threatening wildlife and closing beaches and businesses in the heart of tourism season.

Due to years of legislative inaction, it was an avoidable disaster.

The lake is an ideal nursery for growing algae. It’s relatively shallow and captures nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich runoff from nearby ranches, farms and septic systems.

When temperatures heat up, the nutrient-laden water grows algae, and when – as it happened in 2016 – Florida has an unseasonably wet winter, the Army Corps of Engineers must release massive amounts of water into the rivers to protect the lake’s aging earthen dike from collapsing.

It wasn’t the first time that the polluted water released from the lake had befouled estuaries, killed fish and flooded tourism-based businesses with cancellations, but it was among the worst.

By July, the mats of guacamole-thick sludge had grown so large they could be seen from space, and the toxicity in the water peaked at dangerous levels, creating a public health scare and forcing Governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency that lasted more than 240 days in Lee, Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

For many in the affected counties, that was the breaking point, and so they banded together.

“There was a lot of energy that was not being funneled the right way,”  Capt. Daniel Andrews, a founder of Captains for Clean Water, told the News Press last July. “So I wanted to get with others with similar interests and really funnel that toward a meaningful solution.”

That solution – a deep-water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee – was Senate President Joe Negron’s top priority. The republican lawmaker represents Stuart, a town near the St. Lucie River that was hard-hit by the slimy crisis last year. He managed to pull together strong bipartisan support for the bill, SB10, and it passed with a vote of 36-3, with two Democrats and one Republican dissenting.

The Senate’s plan, which has now been signed into law, will use 14,000 acres of state land south of the lake to create at least 240,000 acre feet of storage. Once the reservoir is complete, an estimated 78 billion gallons of water can be cleaned and sent into the ailing Everglades, which is suffering from a lack of fresh, clean water.

In addition to speeding up the work on the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, the bill supports plans to build storage projects north, east and west of the lake and provides money to retrain farm workers who could lose their jobs when the state’s land is converted from farm land to water storage.

Half the cost of the $1.5 billion effort could be paid for by the federal government through already approved funding.

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