News Press


Failing economy puts Caloosahatchee cleansing at risk


By Ryan Hiraki


December 16, 2008


The failing economy and subsequent budget crunch could slow the implementation of an initiative to cleanse the Caloosahatchee River, despite unanimous support for the plan Monday from state water managers.

That plan will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require a team effort, from the South Florida Water Management District, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and local governments — primarily Lee County, where the river empties into San Carlos Bay.

“It will be a challenge at all levels” to secure money, said Kurt Harclerode, operations manager with the county’s division of natural resources.

The plan will require the construction of water storage and treatment areas north and south of the Caloosahatchee and studies to determine how to limit pollutants such as fertilizer. This will fall in line with water quality standards the state Department of Environmental Protection is expected to create by the end of next year.

The Caloosahatchee, after the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, carried fresh water and pollutants from Lake Okeechobee to Lee’s coastline, chasing people from beaches that are an essential piece of the county’s annual $2 billion tourism industry.

With the water management district on board, the place everyone will be turning to now is the Legislature.

That will likely be a tough sell as the state faces a $2.3 billion shortfall. Lawmakers will convene in special session Jan. 5 to discuss the state’s financial budget.

Lawmakers, led by former Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, passed the Northern Everglades Restoration bill in 2007, which includes restoring areas around the Caloosahatchee. The bill requires state environmental managers to designate at least $5 million for projects that improve water quality in waterways such as the Caloosahatchee, and water managers and Lee officials to each match the state’s $5 million through 2020.

The money the bill generates would serve as a boost to the tens of millions of dollars Lee County and water management district officials already have spent on environmental projects in the area, such as the C-43 reservoir in Hendry County, a $500 million project along the Caloosahatchee that still needs federal dollars for construction.

But during the upcoming budget year, lawmakers face the challenge of designating at least $5 million for restoration. This year, Gov. Charlie Crist directed every department to cut 10 percent from their budgets, after legislators cut more than $4 billion from the budget this past spring.

“There are going to be some serious and painful cuts this year and there are no easy decisions,” said state Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, whose district includes Lee County and stretches across the state to Palm Beach County. “Everything is on the table because of our state’s budget crisis.”

Do not expect a sudden influx of cash either, not like last year when the Legislature was able to find $300 million to help the state’s Florida Forever land preservation program.

House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach Gardens, told their colleagues there would be no “community-issue budget requests” or “c-birs” this year, projects known as pork or turkeys in Washington.

“There won’t be any windfalls this year,” Aronberg said.

But there are a couple of positives.

Jennifer Nelson, an environmental manager with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Fort Myers office, said the work already done around the Caloosahatchee gives officials a good start.

“The idea is for these efforts to dovetail and work together,” she said.

And Aronberg hinted of potential good news coming out of the Capitol this year.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. Projects tied to Everglades restoration “have traditionally been a bipartisan priority in Tallahassee.”