With Congress on recess and Republicans gathering in Cleveland to nominate Donald Trump for president, Rubio will hold a 10 a.m., closed-door huddle with officials in Fort Myers to discuss Lake Okeechobee releases and their impact on the Caloosahatchee River before taking part in a similar, non-public roundtable at 4:45 p.m., in Stuart, focusing on the Indian River estuary.
Rubio plans to meet with the media after each event.
No doubt, there will be some mention of the White House’s decision Friday to deny Gov. Rick Scott’s request for an emergency declaration aimed at drawing more federal dollars to ease the algae crisis. Rubio, a Republican seeking re-election, blasted President Obama for being eager to golf in Florida’s Treasure Coast, but not willing to offer enhanced aid for a crisis blamed on lake water fouled with runoff from nearby septic tanks, development and agricultural interests.
Scott didn’t make his case that federal assistance under the Stafford Act is warranted, said Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate in a letter late Friday. Fugate is a former Florida emergency management chief.
It’s the second time in less than a month that Scott has been turned down in his request for a federal declaration, having lost a similar bid for aid following the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.
In his July 6 request, Scott argued that the federal government is solely responsible for maintaining the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and “any damage caused by the unnecessary water releases due to the federal government’s lack of appropriate maintenance of the Dike is the federal government’s responsibility.”
Environmentalists and many citizens groups, though, also argue that Scott and the Republican-led Legislature haven’t done enough to enforce clean water standards and blunt the impact of the politically powerful agricultural industry on Lake Okeechobee.
Even Scott is now promoting efforts to reduce the impact of runoff from septic tanks on fueling the massive algae bloom
The bloom now spans roughly 200 square miles — a 500 percent increase from May, when it was measured at 33 square miles.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is spending billions to repair the dike around the lake, has been flushing lake water down the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River since last year because high lake water levels threaten the fragile dike around it and the corps must be sure to have enough storage space in the lake during the rainy season.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter also criticized Scott for coming up short in his sales pitch for aid to the Obama administration. He said the state isn’t doing enough to clean water being released from Lake Okeechobee, even though voters sought to improve the big lake by approving a constitutional amendment that sets aside money for land-buying.
“Gov. Scott’s initial request only sought to point fingers at the federal government and away from the state’s responsibilities,” Murphy said. “If the Governor saw the same devastation I’ve seen firsthand, he would immediately submit a legitimate request for assistance and finally use Amendment 1 funds as they were intended – to buy additional water storage lands that would provide relief to our waterways.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he was disappointed with Obama’s decision, noting that the president is familiar with the Treasure Coast, having enjoyed a few rounds at Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City.
“This is an ill-advised decision on the president’s part, and he should reconsider and grant the disaster request,” Rubio said.
“South Florida is facing a crisis,” Nelson wrote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid. “These algae blooms are the result of historic amounts of rain that has forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discharge billions of gallons of nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee to prevent the aging Herbert Hoover Dike from failing.”
“Since the state refuses to acquire additional land south of the lake to help store and treat this water before sending it south – as Mother Nature intended – it’s imperative that Congress act now to help solve the problem,” Nelson added.
The legislation, which was recently placed on the Senate calendar, includes provisions allowing the corps to continue the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which includes moving more water south of the lake.
But Scott sees the spread of mega-developments, from the Panhandle to the heart of panther habitat in Southwest Florida, as helping the state pay for widespread environmental problems facing the state.
The Indian River Lagoon on the state’s Atlantic shore and Caloosahatchee River on the Gulf of Mexico side have been badly fouled by freshwater runoff from Lake Okeechobee, carrying pollutants from neighborhoods, farms and cities.
At the same time, freshwater springs, concentrated mostly in Central and North Florida, have proved particularly vulnerable to pollutants from nearby development. Such landmark sites as Silver Springs, Wakulla Springs and Fanning Springs are choked by nutrients and algae.
Scott, though, said his administration has steered $880 million toward advancing long-stalled Everglades’ projects while backing major efforts for cleaning the Indian River Lagoon and endangered springs.
These initiatives would not be possible without the dollars provided by the building projects that are flourishing in Florida, he said.
“All that’s happened,” Scott said, “because we’ve turned around our economy.”
On what had been timber and farm land in Charlotte County on the Gulf coast, a city whose acreage is bigger than Manhattan is beginning to emerge. In Orange County, 4,000 homes are on their way east of the Econlockhatchee River, long a dividing line between urban and rural Central Florida. Prime Florida panther habitat is targeted for development in eastern Collier County, just southeast of Palm Beach County.
What’s happened in Florida since growth oversight has been reduced?
Environmentalists held news conferences around Florida Wednesday critical of legislation cast as the state’s centerpiece effort to protect endangered waterways and springs.
“In their current forms, these bills will not protect the citizens of Florida or our natural resources,” said Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club.
The club was among 106 organizations and businesses that signed onto a letter sent to Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, that cite problems with the major water proposals, (SB 552, HB 7005).
The measures cover stormwater management, springs’ protection, water supply and the always combative intersection of agriculture and environment around Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River estuaries.
A similar effort failed to clear the Legislature earlier this year. But it’s been retooled and, supporters say, toughened.
The latest proposals also require the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research to provide an annual assessment of the state’s water resources and conservation lands — a step seen as helping keep the state’s water woes at the forefront.
Environmental groups Wednesday, however, said the push is “undermined by loopholes” and cite 11 areas of concern that need work.
Separately, though, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said the legislation assured that Florida was headed toward “measurable progress.”
“There will be measurable progress toward…closing the gap of a 1.3 billion gallon per day shortfall of water to support people, agriculture and the environment,” Putnam said in a meeting with reporters at the Capitol.
“This bill is a heavy lift. It fell apart last year because it is a significant water policy that is comprehensive and statewide in nature….If it were easy, it would be sailing through. It does things, which is why it is meriting a lot of scrutiny,” he concluded.
House Republicans are rallying behind creating “Legacy Florida,” a proposal unveiled Tuesday that would steer $200 million a year toward restoring the Florida Everglades and associated waterways.
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, is expected to file legislation in coming days. It would dedicate a portion of the voter-approved Amendment 1 environmental dollars toward Legacy Florida and the cleanup efforts.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the measure may be viewed by the Senate. But Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who is poised to be designated Wednesday as the next Senate president, is a longtime advocate of Everglades funding.
The state-federal Everglades restoration project would draw $100 million annually, while the South Florida Water Management District would get another $32 million each year to support waterway cleanup. The remaining funds would be used for such projects as easing water discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, under the proposal.
“As a seventh generation Floridian, I have made the care of our natural resources a legislative priority. I want to ensure that future generations can enjoy the beauty of well-managed land and water,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. “The Everglades is at the heart of our natural resources, and I believe consistent funding will help preserve and protect this national treasure.”