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Amid Shutdown, Bipartisan Congressional Panel Talks Florida Water Problems

A bipartisan congressional panel held a hearing Thursday about the water issues in estuaries downstream from Lake Okeechobee, which have been polluted by ongoing water releases.

The hearing was attended by a packed house of politicians and residents from all over the state.

Despite the government shutdown around them, congressional members routinely struck a strong bipartisan tone during the panel.

The hearing was put together by Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy and Republican Rep. Trey Radel, which represent districts east and west of the lake, respectively.

Murphy said it was important to make the hearing as bipartisan as possible.

“It’s important to come together in a bipartisan, bi-coastal way, to address this issue,” he said. “Don’t let this little divide say anything about Trey and I not working together on this issue.”

Radel said the panel came at a good time considering the all the gridlock that led to an eventual federal government shutdown.

“In these times of incredible pessimism I hope we can be maybe a tiny little ray of light a hope of optimism,” Radel said.

Both men moderated the four hour-long hearing, which was focused on the negative effects of the ongoing water releases from Lake Okeechobee on water quality in Florida.

Congressional members from all over the state—and the country-- stopped by to express their concern for Florida’s waterways, which have been effectively polluted by the fresh water releases into the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has been battling with Republicans in the House over a spending bill, stopped by to express her relief that bipartisanship was alive in at least one corner of the House.

“It’s really a beautiful sight,” Pelosi said. “We have a bipartisan coming together about an issue—it’s not an issue really, it’s about our planet.”

However, the fact that federal agencies were shutdown during the panel, loomed large over the meeting.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said projects aimed at solving water problems are carried out by non-essential federal employee, most of which are furloughed right now.

“Because [of] the shutdown that means that all of the projects that would be ready would be delayed,” Brown explained. “So this is hurting us.”

Ultimately, the biggest request from state and local officials at the meeting was for Congress to adequately fund projects that would clean up the Everglades and store water from Lake Okeechobee

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, who stopped by the House panel, said that funding depends on whether Congress passes a federal water bill, known as WRDA.

“Go to the west of the lake—go to the Caloosahatchee, there is a project that is scheduled for a big holding area south of label that whole project is going to cost close to $500 million. We’ve got to have appropriations, but we have to have a water bill first.

Besides the many appearances from federal representatives, the hearing was attended by various state lawmakers, officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, environmental activists-- as well as residents from the east and west coast of the state who raised money to take a bus to Washington, all attended the hearing.