Captiva Sanibel

February 15, 2017


Congressman Francis Rooney weighs in on water quality at SCCF

By Ashley Goodman


Newly elected Congressman Francis Rooney gathered with local officials and environmental leaders on Sanibel Thursday to take part in an update on Southwest Florida's ongoing water quality crisis.

After the update, a Q&A session with Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane and the District 19 congressman was held. Before Rooney spoke at SCCF, he received a private tour of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge given by members from the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society.

"(Last year) brought as we all experienced, not only ecological challenges from the large discharges of dark water, but also economic ones. They are the kinds of things both ecologically and economically have multi-year impacts if we don't get the water right. Our water plays a huge part in our quality of life and our economics here and we have about as much water as we've ever had since the dinosaurs roamed, the problems is, we don't have the capacity anymore to hold or manage or store and move that water. The unique opportunity that we have before us today is opportunities coming from the federal side and from the state to look at new ways of doing restoration that are part of the schedule and that we haven't gotten around to yet," said Rae Ann Wessel, natural resources policy director at SCCF.

One of those opportunities includes getting the green light for the passage of state Senate Bill 10. The bill, which was filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, allots the South Florida Water Management District the chance to purchase 60,000 acres of farmland from sellers south of Lake Okeechobee to build a reservoir. The catch is, the land must be purchased by December 2018. If they can't find willing sellers before time is up, there will be an opportunity to purchase over 100,000 acres from U.S. Sugar.

Rooney said his goal is to get the funds owed from the federal government for the completion of CERP and projects that were authorized in 2007 and 2014. In regards to water quality issues, he told the audience during the panel that networking is key.

"People need to think of it like a spider web. Everybody's got all these different points of contacts and linking together. Any time you hear of somebody that has influence in Washington D.C., - talk about water, talk about Mayor Ruane's study, talk about Rae Ann, get them out there to see her and let me know so we can get them on our list. We just need to be alert for any connection that we can use to draw somebody into our spider web," Rooney said. "We don't need any new projects authorized by the federal government. We just need them to pay the $6 billion for the ones that are already authorized."

Rooney said he plans on bringing leaders from Washington D.C., to see the Everglades so they can better understand the projects. He said he already has commitments from a few people already.

"Then we can work together to broaden and understand our common challenge and also get more allies. I've been keeping a list of everyone that I've run into that has a second home in Southwest Florida, has family that lives in Southwest Florida or has a friend that lives in Southwest Florida," Rooney said.

Since Rooney has taken office, his goal has been to shed light and garner an interest in the community about water quality issues.

"A lot of people don't really understand what we have here. It's a complex issue that requires time to explain, which is difficult. Complex issues are harder to explain than simple ones, we only have so much time and people's attention. I've been taking my little bag of tricks around, my pictures and some of the components of the Everglades projects, I did a letter to the president and got the delegation behind it, which is a good first step. I'm going to do some hearings here soon and then, we'll probably see if we can get someone like Rae Ann or James (Evans) to come up and testify that's an expert in it. I'm trying to build this consensus of these people that have interest here, whether they have homes here, to take a direct interest (in water quality)," Rooney said.

Rooney also noted that the No. 1 priority right now is water.

"It's a big part of why I ran, it's a big part of why everyone ran. Our economy depends on clean bays and estuaries and avoiding disasters like we had last summer. There were people that didn't return this season because of the slime and black water," Rooney said. "I think it's important that people remember two things now that the water has cleared up during the dry season. One, they need to remember that it's going to get bad again when it rains again and two, we have a whole different set of problems when it's too dry. Something like C-43 helps on both of those problems. It can send fresh water to fight the salt water off. It's very complex hydrology."

Ruane said during the session that he is happy to have someone like Rooney who does his research on the storage projects.

"It's been a pleasure to sit up here and work alongside the congressman. When he ran for office, he spent an awful lot of time in my office and sat down with myself and James Evans and really tried to understand the issue," Ruane said.

On a local level, Ruane said he has joined with other mayors in the state of Florida; the next step for them is to convince the House that more storage is needed south of Lake Okeechobee.

"I'm on the board of directors for the Florida League of Mayors. I have the privilege of leading a compact of 163 cities, there are 19 counties that are affected by releases from Lake O, starting from Sarasota down to Monroe then all the way up the east coast. We have joined together as one to try to have a common message. We signed a compact which basically endorses about 95 percent of what's in our White Paper. Our job now is to try to convince the House side for a flow way south. All we're asking to do is consistently stay on task with the Integrated Delivery Schedule. We'd like to have the planning and design moved up to 2018. We will continue to put whatever pressure is necessary to make sure that the House knows exactly where we stand," Ruane said.

Editor's note: The Islander regrets making an error in the earlier version of this article. Previously, the article stated that Rooney is in full support of Senate Bill 10. Rooney is not taking a position on that bill.