Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford visited South Florida Monday to tour the Indian River Lagoon, the site of one of the two coastal estuaries battered by heavy summer rains.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin, played tour guide to the Wesley Chapel Republican in order to push for funding for projects outlined in the committee's report, which was approved Nov. 5 in Tallahassee. The suggested actions are meant to help the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Lawmakers, who began their hearings Aug. 22 in Stuart, the site of the tour, asked for $220 million worth of projects, including $65 million in what they called "short-term" fixes. The appropriations will require legislative approval, which means it is vital to have Weatherford's support.
Among the projects queued for funding is restoration of the Kissimmee River to finish returning it to its previous winding or "lazy" state, which allows nutrients to settle instead of flowing straight into Lake Okeechobee.
In August, Gov. Rick Scott visited the St. Lucie Lock, on the east side of Lake Okeechobee, and pledged $40 million for construction of the C-44 reservoir and stormwater treatment area that would hold and treat excess water instead of it flushing down the river and through the estuary, which then suffers not only from excess nutrients but also from a salinity imbalance. The governor also promised $90 million to raise the Tamiami bridge to facilitate water movement south.
On the west side of the lake,$15 million was suggested in the select committee's report for the C-43 reservoir, which was championed by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers. A federal water-funding bill, WRDA, currently moving through Congress, includes authorization for construction of the C-43 reservoir.
Beyond funding ideas, the committee also approved a suggestion to give the Florida Department of Environmental Protection authority over Lake Okeechobee releases when the Herbert Hoover Dike failure falls below 10 percent. A continual theme by Negron throughout the hearings was criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers' job managing the lake. Although, local water managers warn of the implications of taking over the lake.
Joining Weatherford on the tour were area lawmakers, including Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Hobe Sound; Rep. Gayle Harrel, R-Stuart; and Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.
The speaker took an aerial tour of the site and visited the St. Lucie Lock.