The message of a captain and a politician was delivered in tandem: Florida's top priority is improving water quality.
Florida District 19 Rep. Francis Rooney and Captains for Clean Water co-founder Daniel Andrews spoke before a Fort Myers Beach audience recently, discussing water quality projects and taking questions from residents. The event was held at Fish-Tale Marina by the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce and Al Durrett, Fish-Tale owner.
Rooney and Andrews agreed: that Florida needs to focus on clean water.
"We're all affected. If we don't have clean water we don't have anything," Rooney said.
Rooney was elected in November, and he said cleaning up Florida's water was his top priority and motivation to get elected. Now in the U.S. Congress, Rooney's goal is to secure as much federal funding as possible to help pay for the many different projects to improve the water quality in the state.
But, in order to get that money, Florida needs to present a unified voice about what it needs, Rooney said.
"There are 49 other states and they are just as tough as us," Rooney said, adding that he would be competing with other areas - such as Flint, Mich., - for funding. "We need to be an equally ferocious team. Unified."
Rooney wants the state to focus on a cluster of projects: the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) approved by Congress in 2000; the C-43 Reservoir in LaBelle for water storage; the U.S. 41 bridge that would replace the current dike system through the Everglades; and repairing the Herbert Hoover dike at Lake Okeechobee.
"There's no way to send the water to Florida Bay until we build the Tamiami bridge," he said.
Currently one mile of the bridge has been completed on the eastern edge of the Everglades. Another 5.5 miles remain to be built.
When CERP was passed in 2000, its implementation projects were supposed to be a 50/50 cost share between the federal and state governments. However, the state is ahead by $1 billion, and Rooney said he wants to be sure the federal government will keep up its end of the bargain.
During now-President Donald Trump's campaign trail, he pledged at a rally in Collier County that his administration would work to "protect and restore" the Everglades - and Rooney sent Trump a letter asking him to stick to his word. The letter, signed by all the congress members of Florida, was delivered in February. So far, Rooney hasn't gotten a response. When asked if he was hopeful the Trump Administration would warm to spending federal funds on environmental restoration projects, Rooney said he would "do my best, but I would be fearful of expressing confidence about anything."
He has however secured a visit from members of the Appropriations Committee, which would decide if the projects would get federal funding, to show them what has been done and what needs to be done.
Unfortunately many of the projects are commissioned through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which Rooney admitted works very slowly. It could take 30 years for projects to move forward with the Corps current scheduling timeline, but "we can't wait that long," he said.
Andrews can see first-hand the devastation of the current water quality situation - and he said the Corps would need to speed things up.
Time ticking away
Andrews is a fishing charter captain, when he is not lobbying for clean water. The lush seagrass and oyster beds that he used to fish are disappearing because of the influx of fresh water down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee.
"When we have the discharges, it causes long-term decline that takes years to recover," he said. "Under the current mismanagement, there's no time to recover. It's a vicious cycle."
Andrews decided to take matters into his own hands last year and get educated and involved in what is going wrong with Florida's water systems. He and another captain, Chris Wittman, founded Captains for Clean Water.
Andrews has been traveling the state to visit with other areas who have been negatively impacted by Lake O releases, and said one of his biggest concerns was in the Florida Bay area. In 2015, an en-mass die-off of 50,000 acres of seagrass has decimated what used to be a haven for fish. It was an area of seagrass beds bigger than any of this area's combined, and now it's gone, Andrews said.
The die-off was caused because Florida Bay no longer receives the same kind of freshwater flow as it used to - before, Lake O drained into the Everglades, which deposited into the bay. Now without that fresh water, the salinity is too high for the grass to survive.
"The closer we can get it to its natural flow, the better all the water systems will do," Andrews said.
Once Andrews began to get involved with water quality issues, he decided to go to Tallahassee to meet face-to-face with legislators and tell them what was happening to his, and others, way of life. And it was effective, he said.
"For a real person to go and tell your story They hadn't heard from someone on the ground level," he said.
Rooney agreed, real people were more effective than lobbyists in making politicians understand a problem.
Andrews' mission now is to raise money to send 1,000 fishermen, anglers, guides, boat manufacturers - anyone whose life is being negatively impacted by the water quality - to Tallahassee April 11 to tell their stories and tell what they see happening in their waters. The Now or Neverglades Sportfishing Day will be free for those who make the trip, and Captains for Clean Water is accepting donations on its website to fund buses, food and other needs for the journey. He's especially trying to get locals from the worst-hit areas to really illustrate how the laborious, bureaucratic system of getting water quality projects funded and finished is really hurting them.
"We have it bad here, but in Stuart and Florida Bay, they have it worse," he said. "The Florida Bay story is untold."
The sugar stymie
Congressman Rooney avoided discussing agricultural interests and conflicts during the discussion, but after a question from John Heim of the SWFL Clean Water Movement, he said Florida's interactions with the sugar industry and other agricultural groups south of Lake O were out of his jurisdiction.
"I'm not here to defend the sugar industries and their practices. The federal government does not have a dog in that fight," he said. "My job is to get money to get projects done. We've got more to talk about than sugar."
Rooney was one of a handful of congress members who did not accept PAC money. He said he wants to focus on the projects that have already been approved and need to get started or finished - especially the 68 projects through CERP that the federal government has not paid out on.
Andrews said he thought the state could negotiate with sugar industries to purchase land, but that it needed to be a polite and respectful conversation among all parties.
"I think it's best we don't pit coasts against agriculture. It's been a fight my whole life," Andrews said. "Sugar needs to be part of the conversation."