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Last-minute Senate bill to alter Everglades restoration slammed

Selbe B
Flickr / Creative Commons
A last-minute Senate bill allowing agriculture to manage the water level in Lake Okeechobee is meeting strong resistance from environmentalists and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Large amounts of nutrient-rich water released from Lake Okeechobee could once again flow down the Caloosahatchee River if a last-minute Florida Senate bill becomes law.

The bill, SB 2508, effectively returns control of Lake Okeechobee’s water management to agricultural interests. It was filed by the Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday and whisked onto the Senate’s calendar for debate Thursday, Feb. 17.

In addition to ceding Lake O's water management to South Florida’s farming needs, critics of the bill say it would jeopardize water quality, lower water quantity in the Everglades, and threaten the viability for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir. That complex is designed to store and clean nearly 65 percent of the water that would otherwise be sent into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

It surprised and angered not just environmentalists but Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark,” DeSantis wrote in a statement. “I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades. Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the EAA Reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.”

When water from Lake Okeechobee, polluted with excess nutrients from farming, has been released into the Caloosahatchee River in the past decade, it has been blamed for large algal blooms that have killed hundreds of tons of sea life, fouling the river with noxious blue-green algae, ruining tourism in the area, and depressing property values by up to $1 billion.

In 2018, things got so bad after water releases from Lake Okeechobee, due to high water levels after a spate of brush-by hurricanes, that several states of emergency were declared due to a blue-green algae outbreak on the river followed by a massive red tide in the Gulf of Mexico. At one point the blue-green algae and the red tide converged at the mouth of the river and created a kill zone for nearly everything in the water.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation CEO James Evans is quite opposed to any changes to the plans to increase water quality and water quantity in the Everglades, details that have been hashed out for years in meetings, environmental symposiums, and by cooperation between local, state and federal environmental agencies involved in the ‘glades restoration.

“They are doing this in favor of agriculture at the expense of coastal communities, estuaries, the Caloosahatchee and the Everglades," Evans said. “It is something we absolutely need to stand up against.”

Evans is concerned that if the Senate’s effort becomes law residents along the Caloosahatchee might see a repeat of 2018.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) said in a statement that the Senate bill will not change anything.

“Our Senate bill does not in any way reverse or hinder Everglades restoration and is entirely consistent with current policy,” Trilby wrote. “Floridians have invested billions of their hard-earned dollars in environmental restoration and this Senate is going to safeguard that investment.”

Evans, who leads the SCCF, does not see it the same way.

“The coastal communities cannot be sacrificed for the agricultural water supply,” Evans said. “It’s important that we all have water, but it can’t be at the expense of anybody’s quality of life.

“This is simply unacceptable.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, accelerating change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.