TC Palm

January 9, 2014

Eve Samples: As heavy-hitters gather in Naples this weekend, Indian River Lagoon takes center stage

By Eve Samples

For proof that the Indian River Lagoon’s plight has been elevated to a national stage, keep your eye on Naples this weekend.

That’s where heavy-hitting environmental players — from state water managers to top Obama administration figures — will gather for the 29th annual Everglades Coalition conference.

This year’s theme is “Protecting Coastal Communities” and our estuaries are playing starring roles.

Environmental reporter Tyler Treadway and I will be there to cover discussions, including “The Demise of Our Estuaries” and “The Science and Politics of Slime and Urban Fertilizer Management.”

Finally, after last year’s widely publicized discharges from Lake Okeechobee, leaders from Washington to Key West are aware of the century-old problem that has plagued the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and the Indian River Lagoon.

We expect it to get plenty of attention this weekend.

“When we go to Tallahassee and talk to legislators that don’t represent anyone near this issue, they’re talking about it” said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Miami-based Everglades Foundation.

What’s more, they are starting to understand that the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries are part of the larger Everglades system. We must fix them if we want to fix the state’s water woes.

“The light bulb has gone off in people’s minds that when you talk about Everglades restoration, it’s north of the lake, it’s the estuaries, it’s Tamiami Trail, it’s Florida Bay” Eikenberg said.

Eikenberg will be in Naples this weekend, as will Obama cabinet member Sally Jewell, the secretary of the Department of Interior.

Eikenberg said he will be watching her for federal commitments on key projects, including a bridge that will allow water to flow under Tamiami Trail — something Gov. Rick Scott recently allocated $90 million toward.

Eikenberg also wants to know why the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to finish its chief’s report for the Central Everglades Planning Project, which will provide a degree of relief to the estuaries once it is operational in 2029.

The pressure will be on Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army Corps, to answer that question.

The conference will be only two days (Friday and Saturday), but it will set expectations for the state legislative session that begins in March.

We’re likely to see more focus on water issues than we did in years past, thanks largely to the international attention the Indian River Lagoon crisis received last year.

“It’s terrible what happened last summer — but it has finally galvanized the state of Florida to commit to doing something” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.

During the upcoming session in Tallahassee, Draper expects to see either a bill addressing to the state’s freshwater springs or an overall water policy bill. He’s hoping for the latter.

Ideally, Draper would like it to include two things: better monitoring of water pollution sources by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; and forcing the biggest polluters to stop if they exceed state limits.

“In other words, telling agriculture users, ˜You can’t use fertilizer, or you have to reduce your fertilizer use dramatically, until you can show you’re not having an impact” Draper explained.

At this weekend’s conference, Draper will moderate a session examining water management solutions for Lake Okeechobee and the Northern Everglades. Last year, the lake’s watershed was hit with 5,000 tons of phosphorous and 10,000 tons of nitrogen.

Lawmakers who come to the Naples conference (including U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto) will be talking about the right topics.

The challenge will be getting them to embrace long-term solutions.

“Terrible things happen. The Legislature gets excited about it. They pass legislation” Draper said. “Two years later, it’s hard to maintain the momentum.”

The onus is on State Sen. Joe Negron, who spearheaded last summer’s lagoon hearings and is aspiring to become Senate President.

Negron originally planned to attend the Everglades conference, but his schedule changed by the time I spoke to him this week. He said he had to attend a family wedding.

Negron told me his focus this year as the Senate budget chief will be getting money for the recommendations from his Indian River Lagoon Senate Select Committee.

“In the Legislature, just getting an issue to the point where people actually know what it is is an enormous undertaking” Negron said. “Because we’ve got 19 million people, and believe me, there are apocalyptic conditions all over Florida.”

Now, when it comes to the lagoon, they know.