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Unite for the fight: Stop playing politics with our water

Guest Comment

By Staff | Aug 25, 2021

Lee County Commission Chair Kevin Ruane. PHOTO PROVIDED

As an elected official, one of my top priorities has always been to improve our water quality. Over the course of years that I have been in office, I have spent countless hours in Tallahassee and Washington working with state and federal officials to secure the funding for projects essential to Everglades restoration and to reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee. Locally, I have led the charge on numerous policies to reduce nutrient loading, convert septic systems to sewer, protect environmentally sensitive lands, and fund local projects to clean and protect our local waterways.

In the year 2000, the federal government and state of Florida agreed on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a 50/50 cost share partnership designed to “restore, preserve, and protect the south Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.” Completing CERP is the cornerstone to reducing harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. Unfortunately, more than 20 years after Congressional approval of CERP, only 1 of the 68 authorized projects have been completed and the Federal Government’s deficit in this partnership exceeds $1 billion as they continue to lag behind the State in funding.

As residents and elected officials from both coasts plead with the Army Corps of Engineers for a more balanced approach from the Lake Okeechobee Systems Operational Manual (LOSOM) it should not be lost on anyone that a stronger federal commitment to CERP would make this debate a moot point as Lake Okeechobee discharges could have been greatly reduced if more CERP projects had been completed.

Congressman Brian Mast, whose parochial representation of Stuart, continues to push for a LOSOM plan that inundates our coast with harmful lake discharges in order to spare the East Coast. I cannot help but wonder what could be accomplished if he instead focused his energy on getting more federal funds allocated to CERP, rather than grandstanding and fundraising on the water crisis facing South Florida. He, along with several environmental groups based in Southeast Florida, solely focused on the Southern Everglades and Florida Bay, often at the expense of Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee, have repeatedly lobbied against CERP projects that benefit the Caloosahatchee. Their efforts continue to delay Aquifer Storage Recover (ASR) wells north of Lake Okeechobee, which would provide additional tools in reducing discharges by cleaning and storing water north of Lake Okeechobee thus keeping the water out of the lake during the wet season but have it available during the dry season.

Fortunately, the misguided plan put forward by Col. Andrew Kelly and championed by Congressman Mast has united most of the Southwest Florida community. We will not rest until the U.S. Army Corps hears our concerns and changes the LOSOM plan to reduce the burden that has been placed on our region for far too long.

This is about more than just our water quality, it is about our economy, our way of life, and the future of Southwest Florida. I will continue to fight to protect our coastal waters and will not back down from the bullying tactics coming from the East Coast. I encourage everyone to send letters to Col. Kelly (Andrew.D.Kelly@usace.army.mil) at the Army Corps of Engineers asking him to stop playing politics with our water quality and devise a solution that is fair and equitable to everyone — not just the East Coast.

Kevin Ruane is the Chairman of the Lee County Board of County Commissioner. He was elected to represent District 1 on the County Commission last November and previously served on Sanibel City Council for 13 years, 10 years as mayor.