April 22, 2016
Real progress made in reducing water pollutants
By Tom Rooney
This year, longstanding grievances with the Army Corps have been on full display as Florida experienced its wettest dry season since 1932.
Because Lake Okeechobee’s water levels can rise six times faster than water can be released, large-volume discharges are required during extreme weather events like the current “100-year rain” and during tropical storms and hurricanes. The decision to release water either east, west and south of the lake is based on a balance between the need to protect the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike and the communities south of the lake that risk severe flooding if a breach were to occur, and the impact of freshwater releases on the ecosystems of our estuaries and the Everglades.
While the current situation leaves much to be desired from the bureaucratic slog of the federal government, headline-grabbing scapegoats and hurried endorsements of lavish, silver-bullet solutions are irresponsible distractions from reality.
Recent articles and editorials have repeatedly characterized the water discharges from Lake O as “dirty” and “polluted” – which I’ve tried not to take personally – but the prosecutor in me felt compelled to present the other side of the story which, lucky for me, is based in indisputable fact.
The 2016 South Florida Environmental report, which was prepared by people much smarter than me at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District, concluded that total phosphorus in agricultural runoff from land south of Lake O was reduced by 79 percent in 2015, three times the amount required by state law, and phosphorus flowing from north of the Lake was reduced by 26 percent.
I am proud to represent a district that’s made real progress because of, not in spite of, the successful cooperation among ranchers, farmers, conservation groups and state and local governments and their willingness to share responsibility with the federal government to complete one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects in the world.
When momentum slows, or halts to a stop, it’s almost always a result of a lack of funding or delayed decision-making at the federal level. Floridians are also keenly aware that progress also depends on the availability of the land needed to complete comprehensive everglades restoration north and south of the Lake. As a constitutional and fiscal conservative, I disagree with advocates of a sweeping, incredibly costly federal land grab that disrupts my constituents’ ability to willingly enter into contracts to sell or lease their land. Before we consider relinquishing more local control to the executive branch at a significant cost to the taxpayer, I urge my colleagues to first consider the less-flashy option of voting in support the annual spending bills that already fund the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the Herbert Hoover Dike and the Kissimmee River Restoration Project.
One of the first votes I cast when Republicans took control of the House in 2010 was in support of the ban on earmarks that stands in the rules of the House to this day. At the time, Republicans rightfully wanted to exert more oversight over government spending following then-Speaker Pelosi and President Obama’s stimulus spending crusade.
However, what we didn’t fully consider was the impact of the earmark ban on Congress’ ability to exert oversight and control over funding for inherently local programs run in conjunction with the federal government, like those funded by the Army Corps of Engineers. My constituents witness and feel the consequences of every federal government hiccup, misstep, delay, or funding shortfall, and rightfully expect me – a Member of the Appropriations Committee – to be able to do something to make it better. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the funding decisions for everglades restoration programs are left entirely up to bureaucrats in Washington, DC, many of which have never stepped foot in Florida’s heartland.
I know that there are projects the Corps underfunded or didn’t fund, but unfortunately the earmark ban prevents all members from increasing the budgets for specific projects, like the dike, which are urgently needed.
The Appropriations Committee has developed creative solutions within the confines of this rule to address the Administration’s funding shortfalls by providing additional money for “flood control,” “dam safety” and “ecosystem restoration” projects, generally, in our Energy and Water bill. The latest bill, which passed in December with my support, provided these accounts with $125 million, $24 million and $8 million, respectively, hopefully breathing new life into construction efforts stalled by the administration. This is the excruciatingly technical reality facing Members working largely behind the scenes to come up with complicated solutions to complex problems.
I fully realize that this isn’t the stuff typically worthy of a reporter’s attention, because it doesn’t – nor does it claim to – solve all of Florida’s water problems. That’s why I ask my constituents to trust me when I say, although you might not read about it every day in the paper, I’m workin’ on it.
Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, is a U.S. Congressman, representing the 17th District, which includes parts of Lee, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties.