Fishing guides arrive in Tallahassee to say ‘we need help’ to save Florida Bay

Pete Frezza, an Audubon of Florida researcher based in Tavernier and a part-time fishing guide, looks over a muddy bottom in northern Florida Bay. It should be covered by lush fields of turtle grass, critical to fish and other wildlife
Pete Frezza, an Audubon of Florida researcher based in Tavernier and a part-time fishing guide, looks over a muddy bottom in northern Florida Bay. It should be covered by lush fields of turtle grass, critical to fish and other wildlife Keynoter

Fishing guides who rely on Florida Bay and other fragile waterways arrived in the capital Tuesday to plea with lawmakers to follow through on the goal of buying land to build a water-storing reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

“We’re not up here to play politics,’’ said Daniel Andrews, founder of Captains for Clean Water from Southwest Florida. “We’re here to say we have a need and we need help.”

More than two dozen fishing guides and their families spent the day meeting with more than 40 legislators and staff to urge them to support a plan by Senate President Joe Negron to build a deep-water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that will store and clean water to flow into Florida Bay and alleviate the need to discharge polluted water into estuaries. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill on Wednesday.

“The bay is constantly on the verge of collapse and we get a lot of water, it’s just enough water and when we don’t get enough water, it’s devastating,’’ said Steve Friedman, a back-country fishing guide from Islamorada.

Last week Friedman organized a protest of Florida Keys fishing guides who assembled their skiffs in Florida Bay, spelling the word “Help!” in an aerial message intended for Tallahassee.

“The way I see this, the wick has been lit, so we don’t have more time for delays,” Friedman said Tuesday before he met with legislators and staff. “We don’t have more time for politics. It’s about doing the right thing.”

He and his colleagues said they are baffled at the failure of the political system to respond to a crisis that is costing people’s livelihoods and jobs when the notion of buying land for a southern reservoir was agreed to by the state, the federal government and the agricultural industry in 2000.

Negron’s plan, SB 10, would cost $1.5 billion and rely on federal money for half. It would convert 14,000 acres of state land now used as a shallow reservoir to build a deep-water reservoir. Negron, R-Stuart, restructured the proposal last week in the face of intense opposition from the sugar industry and residents of the Glades who objected to having 60,000 acres of active farm land removed from production.

Instead, the bill relies primarily on state-owned land and allows the South Florida Water Management District to purchase more by buying or swapping with farmers for other parcels owned by the state.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said last week that while he thinks the changes made by Negron and approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee were an improvement, he refrained from saying he would support the bill because it continues to open the door to allowing bonding for the purchase of additional land.

“We’re not bonding,” Corcoran said. “I didn’t say we’re going to go along with it. I said it’s getting better and better.”

The fishing captains said they weren’t interested in how legislators work out their differences but want to see progress soon.

“We just need a solution,” Andrews told reporters. “We don’t care if they pay for it — if they bond it or pay cash or if they have a yard sale and sell stuff — whatever they need.”

For decades, Florida Bay has endured repetitive algae blooms that have killed off sea grass and weakened the bay’s biosphere, leaving giant swaths empty and barren that were once teeming with game fish. Meanwhile, while Florida Bay didn’t have enough water, Lake Okeechobee had too much and polluted water discharged from the lake led to toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

“We’re just trying to prevent too little too late,” Friedman said. “You can’t go to Florida Bay and Islamorada, the sports fishing capital of the world, and not go fishing.”

Joining the group was U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a freshman Republican from Hutchinson Island who said he is preparing legislation to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start the permitting process for a southern reservoir immediately, expediting what could be a four- or five-year bureaucratic delay. The proposal is similar to a provision in Negron’s plan that would force the South Florida Water Management District to move the planning date from 2021 to no later than October 2018.

Mast said federal officials told him “if we owned land tomorrow, it would be 10 years before we got to a final project.”

He acknowledged that Florida’s Everglades Caucus, a bipartisan group of congressional members, is “absolutely unified in addressing this fight but is absolutely not unified in what the solutions are.”

But he said that with construction technology improved, there should be no excuse for a prolonged delay in building a southern reservoir.

“We should be asking ourselves over and over again, why this is taking decades?” he said. He commended the grassroots advocacy of the fishing guides and told them “political pressure matters.”