Members of Congress will fight for specific needs in their jurisdictions when it comes to discharges from Lake Okeechobee. But U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds said ultimately, Florida’s delegation shares the same mission when it comes to South Florida’s water resources.
At a roundtable in Cape Coral on Tuesday, the Naples Republican said he’s working with colleagues such as U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a Hialeah Republican with a spot on the House Appropriations Committee.
“Republicans and Democrats, we want to fix it,” he said. “We may have our other political battles, but when it comes to water we have these conversations.”
And he said the momentum for change is on South Florida’s side. Speaking to about 100 gathered at Cape Coral City Hall, sitting alongside Army Corps of Engineers Col. Andrew Kelly and Interior Department Everglades Restorations Initiatives Director Adam Gelber, he said the political will behind changes to water management in Okeechobee appear stronger than he has ever seen.
The freshman Congressman believes Gov. Ron DeSantis will remain extremely focused on the process of updating operations at the Herbert Hoover Dike. But he also said President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has a strong interest in rehabbing the Everglades, one issue where there’s continuity with former President Donald Trump, a Republican.
Chauncey Goss, chair of the South Florida Water Management District, agreed with that assessment. Politically active himself, Goss said he has been pushing hard for changes to discharges since 2013 and has seen interest in the issue crest in the past few years. That’s largely thanks to a toxic year of blue-green algae and red tide blooms in 2018.
“When you look in the past to 15 years ago, (water quality) was a sleepy issue,” he said. “Nobody was paying attention to this problem until it got as big as it is, and we are now paying attention.”
The double-blow to waters in the entire region three years ago shifted focus, both for politicians and government administrators. Kelly said it was after that when the Army Corps of Engineers started to deviate as needed from strict instructions about releasing water from Lake Okeechobee at high water marks into the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee rivers.
Because of the build-up of cyanobacteria in Lake Okeechobee, those discharges often precipitate significant blue-green algal blooms harmful to communities along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. And while the science is less clear, many also believe the resulting nutrient overloads can feed Karenia brevis in estuaries, which can cause red tide blooms.
After both types of harmful algal blooms proved so devastating in 2018, Kelly said engineers at the dike started paying closer attention to conditions before prescribed discharges. He said in February, the Army Corps heavy rains led to higher-than-comfortable levels in the lake that normally would have prompted water discharges to the west. But there was already a red tide event impacting the coast, so instead, the corps released a small amount to the east instead and retained a lake level higher than technically acceptable.
“The key is operational flexibility,” Kelly said.
As the Army Corps moves forward with an updated operations manual for the dike and water management at Lake Okeechobee, he said a priority will be placed on allowing that discretion.
Gelber said it’s important citizens remain engaged in the conversation as well. Especially when decisions are made by federal agencies based in Washington, the voices in those communities directly impacted by local environmental situations must sometimes be amplified. In the case of algae, such noise has been helpful in acquiring dedicated federal funding for research.
“We are now seeing money thrown at algal science,” he said. “And that’s because of the voices of you in the room and on the other coast as well as other communities around the country affected by harmful algal blooms.”
But what happens when those voices disagree? The debate around discharge operations in recent weeks took on a particularly parochial feel, as the Army Corps settled on a foundational plan that initially minimized discharges into the St. Lucie and boosted flows to the Caloosahatchee.
The closest the Tuesday town hall came to rowdy was when one Southwest Florida resident shouted repeatedly for an answer as to why the region must suffer the burden of algae flows alone. But Kelly stressed that already the plan has seen adjustments that allow for some heavy flow to the east under certain conditions.
Donalds said after a meeting with the Corps last week, he received a commitment that flows will be capped from S-79 at 2,100 cubic feet per second, about a third less discharge than originally proposed in the plan. That should mean there’s less discharge impact the west coast.
Adjustments haven’t been universally embraced. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Stuart Republican who has been especially outspoken on limiting discharges into the St. Lucie, sounded alarms and said constituents needed to watch out for a “bait and switch” that leaves heavy discharges eastward and which will leave coastal communities hurting for the sake of sugar farms.
At the same time, state lawmakers from Southwest Florida all co-signed a letter expressing outrage at the initial plan for singling out one coast to take the brunt of discharges over the other. State Rep. Bob Rommel, a Naples Republican, said he’s still disappointed no state lawmakers have been invited to shape the discharge plan.
“We don’t have influence but we do have concerns,” he said.
Rommel said it was discouraging to see a plan that discussed significant elevation of water flowing west after being told for years the hope was to contain it in the lake or flow more south. Even with two reservoirs in the Caloosahatchee Basin coming online within a year and a half, the threat of toxic discharges persists.
“Why are we contemplating these changes when we have two big projects coming online already that may improve water quality?” Rommel asked.
Meanwhile, lawmakers from lakeside communities, most notably U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, have charged the plan could detrimentally affect residents and agriculture interests dependent on water supply and concerned about potential flooding. Donalds notably co-signed a letter Steube wrote raising those concerns.
Geography more than partisanship appears to inform the conflicting takes, and Donalds acknowledged that each lawmaker, whether at the state or federal level, will bring their communities’ individual priorities to the water management conversation. The flow of water through South Florida, both with the lake and corresponding waterways to the south and even the north, impacts millions of Floridians, and each decision made will have local impacts.
Above all, he and other officials at the roundtable stressed the need for a balanced management system. There seems broad agreement the discharge system in effect now has proved disastrous for communities in unacceptable ways, but any fix must look at the system as a whole.
Donalds acknowledged that will sometimes mean members, including himself, must get on board with compromises that may prove unpopular within their own constituencies. He noted that like it or not, there are challenges that face St. Lucie communities that differ from those on the Caloosahatchee. The same goes for lakeside areas. Ultimately, any plan must prioritize the health of Lake Okeechobee itself or problems throughout the system will compound.
“If we do not prescribe a plan that takes seriously the ecology of the lake, none of this matters,” Donalds said. “It’s over for everybody.”