By Jonathan Mattise
Posted July 10, 2013 at 1:45 p.m., updated July 10, 2013 at 6:52 p.m.
In 2003, the largest continuous discharge of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee since 1999 created a dark plume of water visible in the St. Lucie Inlet and along the Atlantic Coast. Such conditions periodically affect the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie estuary when too much water from Lake Okeechobee is released into the estuary.
A newly-formed Florida Senate panel led by Sen. Joe Negron has until November to suggest changes to the Lake Okeechobee freshwater releases into the St. Lucie Estuary, and other water policies maiming local waterways.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, announced the new oversight committee dedicated to the Indian River Lagoon Wednesday. The Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin, which has five Republican and three Democratic members appointed by Gaetz, will hold multiple hearings with stakeholders.
The Senate is looking at early- to mid-August to schedule the hearings, Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta said. Negron said the first hearing will take place in Stuart and the meetings will be open to the public.
“I’m determined to get to the bottom of this issue and how we can prevent environmental devastation to the Indian River, the St. Lucie River and the lagoon,” Negron said.
In addition to state lawmakers, Negron said he will invite the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, South Florida Water Management District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, environmental interests and sugar and agricultural representatives.
Negron said he also plans to speak with Murphy about water issues before the meeting.
“I’m fully expecting all of the important decision-makers to be at the Senate committee hearing,” Negron said.
Negron has credited Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers for bringing the lagoon issue to the forefront. Scripps held two forums on the lagoon’s health with state lawmakers in June.
WHAT IT WILL DO
The committee is tasked with studying the policies, spending and other governmental activities affecting the lagoon and lake basin. Then the group will compile a report by Nov. 4 that includes:
Historic and current state and federal water policies;
Impact of water releases and environmental priorities;
State and federal options for improvement; and
Water policy recommendations.
The report will be submitted to the Senate Committee on Appropriations chaired by Negron, and committees on Environmental Preservation and Agriculture.
“The federal government and the state of Florida have invested vast sums and spent a number of years developing water policies for the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee basin,” Gaetz said in a news release. “The purpose of this Select Committee is to determine what progress has been made and what changes in policy, if any, should be recommended to the Legislature and the Congress.”
The recommendations could result in new water management proposals for the 2014 legislative session, which starts in March, Negron said in the news release.
“Local residents can see the impact of discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon firsthand and have asked members of our local legislative delegation to play a role in assessing the impact of current water release activities,” Negron said in the release.
Environmental advocates contend Lake Okeechobee discharges should flow naturally south toward the Everglades, right through sugar farmlands. Instead, the water is released via canals east into the St. Lucie and west to the Caloosahatchee. The freshwater dumps can cause algae blooms and fish kills in the river and lagoon.