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Contingent of Floridians plead to Congress to help troubled Lake O region


Florida’s top environmental regulator joined a contingent of state legislators and local officials on Thursday to demand that the  federal government turn over the money for Everglades clean-up, and release the reins on Lake Okeechobee to let Florida fix the polluted system that is destroying ecosystems.

At a four-hour hearing on the issue -- completed before the shots were fired in DC -- Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard urged Congress to send Florida a check for the clean-up efforts in the form of a block grant and turn over management to the local water management districts.

“Fortunately, the water management district doesn’t have 200 years of regulations piled up on top of one another so they’re able to move a little faster,’’ Vinyard said at a hearing hosted by by freshmen Reps. Trey Radel, R-Fort Myers and Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

The event drew a busload of activists and concerned citizens from Florida's Treasure Coast, which has become ground zero for the ecological damage that has resulted from the release of fresh water from the rain-swelled banks of Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers since May.

Their goal is to lobby Congress to follow through on passage of the Water Resources Development Act which would authorize a host of projects intended to repair the strained ecosystem and fortify the Hoover Dike, which is threatened by the lake's rising water levels.

Murphy described how the polluted waters of the lake have spawned algae blooms in the estuaries, destroyed nearly all of the oyster beds and forced endangered manatees to feed on toxin-laced algae.

He held up a bottle filled with murky water taken from one of the estuaries and said he is showing it to his congressional colleagues.

“When members see this, it gives them a visual and an understanding of how bad the problem is,” he said.

Sarah Heard, chairwoman of the Martin County Commission, told the panel that since the Army Corps of Engineers corps’s released fresh water from the rain-swelled banks of Lake Okeechobee in May the ecological imbalance has led to “dead dolphins, dead manatees, dead pelicans,’’ she said.

She urged Congress to consider the national implications. “We should not be timid or fearful to save the most important ecosystem in the U.S,” she said.

About 25 members of Congress attended the hearing intermittently including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Bill Nelson, and other members of the Florida delegation.

Several presenters asked Congress to follow through on its promise to finish the Kississimee River restoration, completion of the C44 and C43 canals, fixing the threatened Hoover Dike and pass the Water Resources Development Act that would authorize spending for those projects.

Republicans, who defended the administration when water issues were stalled under the George W. Bush administration, took aim at the Army Corps of Engineers as some Democrats went on the defensive.

“Army Corps stewardship has been a complete abject and dismal failure,’’ said state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City.

He cited a critical report on the corps that blasted them for not properly accounting for the environmental consequences of their policies, using invalid assumptions and outmoded data and urged Congres to remove the corps jurisdiction over Lake Okeechobee and turn it over to the state.

“The Army Corps of Engineers has been running this project for decades,’’ Negron said. “They have failed and they need to be replaced with the people of Florida who have our best interests at heart.”

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said there were more players to blame. “The State of Florida is not completely innocent,’’ she said. “There’s a lot of blame to go around.”

There was also no shortage of promises.

“This is an issue which rises above the current acrimony,’’ said U.S. Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Oregon, a member of the Natural Resources and Transportation committees that will vote on the legislation.

He recalled how Congress promised to restore the flow of water from the Everglades and establish treatment areas to filter out the pollution and protect the estuaries more than a decade ago.

“We haven’t delivered on that promise,’’ DeFazio said. “…I intend to push really hard on both committees to see that we finally deliver…to restore a national treasure and give you the relief you need.”

Radel called for a bi-partisan letter to President Barack Obama urging him to come to see the polluted region to help find bi-partisan support for immediate action.

“In these days of pessimism…there are things that unite us,’’ he said.