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Going ‘green’
July 20, 2018

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Pea soup. Guacamole. Slime green. Putrid chartreuse.

Descriptions vary but the dismay throughout all of south Florida is universal - the green gunk chumming the Caloosahatchee with noxious toxins is an environmental crisis - and a preventable one.

Elected officials at both the state and federal level have had nearly two decades to mitigate the issue of nutrient-heavy, algae-laden discharges from Lake Okeechobee that again have resulted in shore-to-shore "blooms" in not only the Caloosahatchee but some Cape canals.

They have dallied.

And while progress has been made of late with both approval and fiscal followup of Florida Senate Bill 10 for the creation of a new billion-dollar reservoir project south of the lake via state-federal cost sharing, it is an effort long, long overdue.

Congressman Francis Rooney, who has spearheaded the Everglades restoration effort since taking office a year and a half ago, summed the issue up succinctly.

"If this commitment to solving our water quality issues were present 18 years ago, instead of 18 months ago, our current algae blooms would not be occurring," he said in a release that hailed support for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir plan, part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP, approved in 2000.

The $1.3 billion project, which has both White House support and "placeholder" funding approval, would provide water storage south of Lake Okeechobee.

This would then reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee when water levels in the lake rise high enough to threaten the surrounding Herbert Hoover Dike, itself now set for an expedited $514 million in repairs to be funded with post Hurricane Irma federal disaster recovery funds.

Thank you and thank you.

But that does not change the fact that progress has lollygagged and that key opportunities for mitigation have been ignored by the state's it-ain't-easy-bein'-green officials, including some who are now finger-pointing at the feds because constituents - aka voters - are decrying the smelly slime oozing beyond their backyards.

Consider:

Once hailed as a "gift to the Everglades," state officials let lapse in 2015 a much-cut but still sweet contract to buy thousands of acres south of Lake Okeechobee from U.S. Sugar for wetlands restoration.

This would have mitigated water releases west into the Caloosahatchee and east into the St. Lucie River, also plagued by the current bloom that has resulted in water warning signs at all of Cape Coral's riverfront parks.

It's not like there was no money.

Floridians in 2014 passed Amendment 1, a water and land conservation initiative that requires that a portion of all documentary stamp fees on real estate transactions collected by the state be used to "acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands."

Purchase of the acreage U.S. Sugar had agreed to sell in 2008 was high on the list of those stressing the benefits of the amendment's passage.

So how were those funds - then estimated to be about $750 million for the upcoming year alone - used out of the gate?

Instead of earmarking the money as intended by the 75 percent majority that voted "yes" to the constitutional amendment, the "water quality" pols we entrust to 1) represent the people who elected them and 2) adhere to the state's bedrock governing document, its constitution, allocated just a portion of that - for "operating and regulatory" expenses for existing agencies.

Three years after that first post-vote budget, Floridans still aren't getting the bang for the buck intended to fund conservation efforts such as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

So don't just blame the feds, including the Army Corps of Engineers.

There's blame aplenty to go around.

What's needed now is a concerted - and continuing - commitment to the solutions at hand.

That starts with a full and proper allocation of funds as approved by the voters.

Before the next water quality driven State of Emergency that, unfortunately, has given a whole new meaning to the expression, "going green."

-Breeze editorial

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