Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday pledged $40 million to speed up a project intended to help clean up polluted Lake Okeechobee water that has poured into the St. Lucie River this summer, triggering toxic algae blooms, killing oysters and sea grass and angering residents and tourists.
But the governor placed most of the blame for the worsening disaster in the St. Lucie, and a similar mess in the Caloosahatchee River on the southwest coast, on the federal government.
In a letter sent Tuesday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Scott criticized it for “inaction” on repairing the deteriorating dike around the massive lake and for failing to adequately fund water quality and Everglades restoration projects that could help reduce periodic damaging releases of lake water.
“Sadly, had the federal government met all of its obligations in maintaining the Lake Okeechobee dike system . .. the environmental conditions of this region could have been improved and the crisis in the region today would have been mitigated,” Scott wrote in a letter to Corps Brig. Gen. Donald Jackson.
Scott also called on the Corps and other federal agencies to pour $1.6 billion into South Florida environmental projects — “which you owe the state,” he wrote — under 50-50 cost-sharing agreements.
Scott made similar comments later Tuesday after touring a massive flood-control gate along the St. Lucie River where the Corps is releasing about three billion gallons a day from the rain-swollen lake to ease pressures on the aging, leaky dike. The dumping has lowered the lake by several inches in the past few weeks, but massive slugs of nutrients and sudden influx of fresh water have decimated rivers and estuaries on both coasts.
The Corps released a statement defending its work on the dike, which includes a recently completed $220 million project to shore up the most vulnerable 21-mile stretch of the massive earthen embankments and ongoing work to replace 32 culverts that more recent studies suggest are major weak points.
The Corps, said Jacksonville district commander Col. Alan Dodd, can only build what Congress authorizes and agrees to pay for.
“The Corps is disappointed in Governor Scott’s letter,” Dodd said. “However, we welcome the opportunity to better educate our partners and enhance our relationship.”
The lake releases and declining conditions in the St. Lucie and the larger Indian River Lagoon system have become a major issue along the Treasure Coast. Several hundred people showed up to wave “save our river” signs as Scott toured the St. Lucie locks.
Scott said he would ask lawmakers for $40 million next year to speed up completion of the C-44 reservoir and stormwater treatment area in western Martin County, which is intended to clean runoff before sending it to the estuary. The Corps is responsible for building the $225 million-plus project, which includes a 3,400-acre reservoir, but doesn’t currently expect to complete it until 2020.
Scott didn’t address the protesters, but environmentalists were generally pleased with Scott’s announcement — and advocacy for increased federal support for Everglades and water quality projects.
Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon’s director of Everglades policy, called Scott’s pledge of an additional $40 million a “positive sign.” But she also said that the C-44 was just one piece of a nearly $1 billion array of projects to store and clean up water flowing from the lake and other areas along the Indian River Lagoon. They can’t move forward without increased political support and funding from both federal and state leaders, she said.
“It’s encouraging but we can’t forget that there are a whole lot of other things that still need doing,’’ she said.