Last Tuesday, President Obama signed into law the Conference Report to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA). As you may recall, representatives from Lee County testified before Congress earlier this year on the need to pass WRRDA. The bi-partisan bill authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct water resource projects throughout the country. Of particular importance to Lee County is the authorization of construction of the Caloosahatchee (C-43) West Basin Reservoir. This federal and state partnership project, when completed, will hold 55 billion gallons of water on 11,000 acres in Hendry County. Designed predominantly to provide the needed fresh water releases to the estuary during the dry season, the reservoir will help to greatly reduce the number of times that fresh water is cut off.
While having a WRRDA billed passed and signed into law is an important landmark in moving forward with Caloosahatchee restoration and protection, there is heavy lifting still to take place to ensure that funding through federal appropriations for the project will be forthcoming. We will be working just as hard with the Congress and the Administration to make sure that federal funding for the C-43 reservoir is a top priority.
On the state level, more good news was on tap as the recently approved budget includes $18 million for the beginning phase of construction on the C-43 Reservoir. Allocation of these monies will allow, the South Florida Water Management District to begin construction on the project as early as October.
Until the reservoir project is complete and other projects come online, we still must rely on Lake Okeechobee for needed freshwater releases. We must continue to work with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District, and the various stakeholder groups to ensure that the operation of the Lake is carried out in a manner that recognizes the needs of our valuable natural system. Too often in the past, the Caloosahatchee as been disproportionally impacted by decisions that have been made to protect other users while discounting the needs of the estuary. We also need to be asking the Corps how the nearly 900 million of tax payer dollars spent on the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike around the Lake has moved us closer to being able to limit the high volume discharges into the estuary.
Additional funding from the State this year will help not only our estuary but the St. Lucie Estuary and the Everglades. Many of our problems are very similar and solutions like moving additional water south under the Tamiami Trail benefits not only the Everglades but also the east and west coast estuaries. Major projects are still needed on all sides of the Lake to improve conditions through the Lake Okeechobee/Everglades system. We must continue to push for these projects to see system-wide improvements.
Lee County, for its part, continues to address water quality projects that also provide environmental enhancement and flood protection. With additional resources allocated by the State to cost share on several projects this year, the County will keep on course to reduce nutrient input into our local waters. Lee County also leads by example in source control, with a strong fertilizer ordinance that is now into its eighth year of existence.
While the success this year at a local, state, and federal level is heartening, now is the time to be planning for next year with a goal of exceeding the results that we have enjoyed. I believe it is time for the community to coalesce behind a suite of top priority projects to promote to agencies and state and federal law makers. The good news is that most of the planning to determine what needs to be done has already been done. Good plans that have been vetted by stakeholders and agencies have been written. Plans like the Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan have a host of projects that need to be implemented. My hope, and what I will propose as a priority for your County Commission, is to work with the various stakeholders, agencies and community organizations to come together with a priority list of projects. That priority list would then be used to work toward funding and implementation. We did well this year, we can do better.
As we begin our wet season is it my sincere hope that we have the needed rains essential to our environment and our economy, without the devastation of hurricanes and excess rains. But now it is time to focus our efforts, to speak as one voice for protection and restoration of our most valuable natural resources. Please join me in this cause.
Commissioner Larry Kiker is the chair of the Lee County Board of Commissioners and represents District 3. Email him at Dist3@leegov.com or call (239) 533-2223.