LAKE OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (AP) — In the marshes along the western edge of Florida's largest freshwater lake, the water is clear, wading birds burst into the sky ahead of an approaching airboat, and there's no sign of the turmoil that elevated water levels caused last summer.
The political waters in Tallahassee, though, are roiling over Lake Okeechobee and other hydrological woes, from Florida's Big Bend to the state's signature springs to a treasured estuary along the Atlantic.
Residents, lawmakers and environmental advocates want the state to do more to better manage its water resources. However, the speaker of the House has said no major change to Florida's water policies is likely to come out of the legislative session that begins March 4.
Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told reporters earlier this month that any water issues that come up this year will deal with funding, while policy initiatives and long-term water management plans likely will be deferred until next year. His office declined comment last week on those statements and referred questions about water issues to the legislator expected to take over as speaker in 2015, House Majority Leader Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.
"Most of what we're looking at right now is project-related, not policy-related," Crisafulli said.
The projects up for discussion include a cleanup in the Indian River Lagoon and finding ways to store more water north of Lake Okeechobee, which would alleviate pressure on the lake's decrepit dike and reduce the amount of water released into sensitive ecosystems west and east of the lake, Crisafulli said.
Last year, water levels in the lake rose to dangerous levels during a very rainy wet season, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the dike and locks around the 730-square-mile lake, to release large amounts of fresh water into the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River. The excess water and the pollution it carried were blamed for steep declines in the health of those ecosystems.
Residents on either side of the lake loudly called for the water to stop; corps officials said they were working to do so while managing the risks that high water levels pose to the earthen dike, parts of which date back to the 1930s. It got so contentious that Republican Gov. Rick Scott added the lake's federal management to his list of complaints against President Barack Obama's administration.
State senators investigating the problems have recommended shifting control of how and when water is released from the lake from the corps to the state, which would require congressional action. The Senate select committee led by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also recommends $220 million in state funding to improve water quality and expand storage reservoirs around the lake.
In November, voters will consider a conservation amendment that could set aside $10 billion in state funds over 20 years for land and water conservation. Some lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, say it's better to wait and see whether that amendment passes before devoting major resources to water cleanup and management.
Waiting doesn't sit well with everyone, though.
"What we know is that during this legislative session or any other legislative session, if we do not make the elected officials do what we demand, then they won't," said Cris Costello, a regional organizer for the Sierra Club, which has signed onto a statewide campaign that aims to build public demand for better water quality and resource management. "They will take the easy way out and remain in status quo mode."
It's unclear how the House would receive bipartisan legislation that would set a firm timeframe for cleaning up Florida's most polluted springs, identify the septic tanks and other sources of that pollution and establish an ongoing funding source for those projects. Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is one of five lawmakers now working on the bill in the Senate.
Scott wants to spend $55 million in the coming year to restore and protect Florida's long-suffering springs. "I think we're looking for more money than that this year to get started," Simpson said.
Scott also has pledged $130 million in the upcoming budget for Everglades projects, including restoration of the Kissimmee River that drains into South Florida's wetlands, construction of a storm-water treatment plant for Martin and St. Lucie counties and reconstruction of the Tamiami Trail to allow water to freely flow south.
Environmental groups have criticized state officials for slashing funding for conservation purchases as well as Florida's invocation of states' rights in joining a friend-of-the-court brief challenging a cleanup plan for the Chesapeake Bay. Also missing from this year's water proposals, they say, is any discussion of stopping water pollution at its source: farms, septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants.
"Do we need money for cleanup and restoration? Yes, but in order for those projects to work you have to stop the source of the pollution," Costello said. She called Scott's budget proposals "a political ploy in an election season to make it look like he's doing something."
Audubon Florida officials point to Lake Okeechobee as an example of what happens when pollution isn't addressed at the source. It's the focus of competing interests: Environmentalists want to preserve its resources; the corps uses it for flood control; the state wants it for South Florida's water supply; and the agriculture industry views it as a reservoir. Repeated costly cleanups have been needed in and around the lake because water hasn't been stored or cleaned elsewhere. Meanwhile, pollution continues to flow into the watersheds in quantities that exceed standards the state set for the lake.
"With all the repeated high-water and low-water problems on the lake, and the estuary dumps, and all the pollution, and all the water shortages — you know, we're going to have to spend a lot of money to fix it. If we don't, this is going to be our life, and it's going to get nothing but worse with more and more people (moving to Florida)," said Paul Gray, science coordinator for Audubon Florida's Lake Okeechobee program. "If this isn't important to people — this is going to be our life, really? It's going to be this bad?"
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