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Guest Opinion: Southwest Florida needs a water quality plan - now
March 13, 2019

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Florida has a problem with Lake Okeechobee. It is a huge ecological and water quality issue for our state - and we must deal with it NOW.

It is time things changed, we cannot continue down a failed path. The key parts of my plan are:

Form a working group of other county commissioners and city council members from Southwest Florida counties and cities so that we can speak with one voice to our state legislature. Often, Southwest Florida gets ignored. Our voice has not been as loud as Miami, Broward and Palm Beach. Our voice must be heard. We must stand together and fight for a state law to insure our water quality.

Work with our state legislative delegation to introduce legislation that will require SFWMD to reduce pollution in the water that flows downstream to us. I would propose that the standards should mirror the Clean Water Act standards that the SFWMD has fought against. There should be a firm timeline with a deadline of 10 years to meet these standards. I would like to get this done sooner but given the levels of pollution in Lake Okeechobee and our state's neglect in the past, 10 years is a realistic deadline.

Work to introduce state legislation that will hold the water management accountable to the people by creating a unit in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to act as oversight to SFWMD and have authority over SFWMD's funding and standards. No state agency should have the right to pollute our waterways.

It is time for a state law that establishes water quality standards that protect Lee County and all of Southwest Florida.

When water levels are regulated and polluted water flows through our waterways it becomes a very pointed problem for Lee County and all of Southwest Florida. Last year, our region, our county, our communities and our homes and businesses were devastated by the pollution that flowed down our streams, through our waterways, turning our rivers green and our red tide more deadly.

Until we understand who is most directly responsible, we don't know who and how to hold them accountable.

It would be great if it was as easy as the Lee County Commission passing a county ordinance to prohibit dumping polluted water into our waterways but that is actually illegal. The Water Resources Act of 1972 gives the state power to regulate all of Florida's waterways and prohibits local governments, city or county, from enforcing or passing any ordinance regarding waterways. So as a commission we have no direct authority.

What agency has the responsibility to insure that polluted water does not flow through our water ways? Is it the United States Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection or South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD)? The answer is none. At this time I could not find any state or federal requirement for SFWMD to not send polluted water downstream to our community.

In fact, the SFWMD fought in federal court and spent taxpayer dollars for the ability to flush toxic polluted water to our county, community and homes. They fought to prove the Clean Water Act did not apply to flushing their pollutants downstream.

Over the past 30 years, our state has given more and more power and authority to the South Florida Water Management District; an organization that certainly doesn't answer to the voters, whose executive director is selected by their own governing board, who are appointees themselves.

SFWMD spends literally billions, of state and federal dollars, are responsible for the Everglades cleanup effort, the leasing of state owned property, and overseeing water quality for 16 counties.

SFWMD's goal for reducing pollution standards into the Lake Okeechobee hasn't changed since 1994. The pollution reduction goal is 25 percent fewer pollutants than were released 1993. Yes, SFWMD has met that standard; however the standard hasn't improved for nearly a quarter of a century. SFWMD has simply met the same goal they had in 1994.

According to a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, "Total phosphorus loading to the lake [Okeechobee] has not significantly declined over the 1974-2017 period of record." After 40 years, missed deadlines, voluntary compliance, passing the buck, fighting the Clean Water Act and Lake Okeechobee is just as polluted as it was in 1974?

It is time that we pursued effective long-term solutions to our clean water challenges, laws that will protect our environment and residents not blind lawsuits that will accomplish nothing.

- Larry Kiker is a Lee County commissioner.

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