- Joel Engelhardt Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When Gov. Rick Scott rips the Obama administration over repairs to the Lake Okeechobee dike, he assumes that making the dike safe means it can hold more water.
Holding more water means less water sent to fragile estuaries, which means less algae causing havoc among boaters, fishermen and nature lovers.
When Scott says President Donald Trump has promised to move up completion of the two-decade dike repair, it means in his view quicker action toward the same goal: holding more water.
As Scott prepares to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018, he is making Lake Okeechobee a foundation of his environmental stand. But to longtime observers of the federal efforts to repair the dike, Scott’s position holds no water.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said. “The current repairs are only about the current safety risk.”
With voters angry over summer algae blooms that poison the once-pristine waters of the St. Lucie River, Scott has persuaded legislators to spend $50 million of state money on a project that until now has been entirely federal.
But even when the dike is complete, there’s no guarantee the levels of water Lake Okeechobee can hold will increase.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls lake levels, says it must conduct a two- to three-year study to determine whether levels can be raised. The $1.7 billion dike project’s intent has not been to turn Lake Okeechobee into a giant reservoir but to safeguard the lake communities from a 1930s-era earthen dam condemned as recently as 2006 as a “grave and imminent danger.”
Additionally, environmentalists argue, raising lake levels to hold more water would damage the fragile lake’s ecology, killing plants that thrive in the lake’s marshy conditions and decimating its world-famous fishing.
That’s a hard stance to take for a politician making an environmental stand.
Obama spending: $759 million
Scott has shown no qualms about carving out that position. In statements dating to 2015, as Treasure Coast residents demanded action to stop lake discharges from damaging waterways, the governor has complained that the Obama administration set aside too little money for the lake — “the rehabilitation of which is critical to the protection of South Florida’s estuaries.”
In declaring a state of emergency in Lee, Martin and St. Lucie counties in February 2016 after heavy rainfall forced discharges of polluted lake water into estuaries, Scott made no secret of his contention that rebuilding the dike would solve the problem.
Spending $800 million more to complete work on the dike would allow it to “safely hold water to prevent these discharges,” the statement said.
Congress during the Obama administration had by that time appropriated $759 million toward the ongoing dike repair. A 70-foot-deep wall had been built along the most exposed 21-mile stretch of levee near the city of Belle Glade and work was underway to repair 24 weak points where culverts allowed water to flow in and out across the entire span of the lake’s 143-mile perimeter.
Still to be done: 35 miles of seepage barrier along the west and south sides and work on eight more culverts.
To assure the public that Scott has focused not only on the dike, his office points to his support for other key storage projects designed to ease discharges and his strong support over the years of the federal-state partnership to restore the Everglades.
“Repairing the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike is a step forward in solving a lot of the water issues surrounding Lake Okeechobee, which is why the governor has fought to make this a priority,” spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said Friday. “Gov. Scott has also championed record investments and signed legislation like SB 10 (a South Florida reservoir), to help improve environmental conditions throughout the Everglades ecosystem.”
His emergency declarations bring state money. In announcing them, Scott often turned on the Obama administration and his complaint that it didn’t spur faster action on the dike.
In June 2016, at the height of the summer algae crisis, Scott declared an emergency in Martin and St. Lucie counties, issuing a statement pointing out the “inaction and negligence of the federal government (for) not making the needed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike.”
“Because the Obama administration has failed to act on this issue, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to discharge millions of gallons of water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries resulting in the growth of blue-green algae which is now entering residential waterways in South Florida,” the statement said.
“Although the president has failed to do what is needed to address this growing issue, the state of Florida will devote every available resource to find solutions for the families and businesses in this area.”
The incumbent whose Senate seat Scott aims to take, Nelson, backs dike repair but for a different reason.
“Fixing the dike is a critical public safety project that we need to complete as soon as possible to protect those living around Lake Okeechobee,” he said in a statement. “Fixing the dike alone is not going to stop the harmful discharges or prevent the toxic algae blooms that have plagued Florida’s Treasure Coast.”
Not on track for 2022
During the 2017 legislative session, as Scott fought to spend $200 million in state money on the lake project, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, fought for a 60,000-acre man-made reservoir south of the lake to hold water during wet times and send it south to the Everglades during dry spells.
After opposition from sugar growers, the proposal shrank to 17,000 acres in western Palm Beach County. The slimmed-down version drew the governor’s support and passed the Legislature.It would cost $1.5 billion, split between the federal and state governments.
After it passed, and legislators deadlocked on budget issues, forcing a special session, Scott got a piece of what he wanted for Lake Okeechobee’s dike: $50 million.
When asked how the money would be spent, his office had no specific answer, saying the state Department of Environmental Protection is working with the corps “to discuss the best way to further repair the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike.”
But to speed up completion by three years, the project will need a lot more money than offered by the state or included in President Trump’s first budget proposal to Congress, which sets aside $82 million.
While that amount topped the $68 million final appropriation of the Obama years, it’s less than half of the $176 million a year that would be needed for five years in a row to get the job done by 2022, as Scott wishes. The Obama appropriations criticized by Scott averaged $95 million a year over eight years.
If Congress approves the $82 million, even counting the state’s $50 million contribution, it represents a setback for Scott’s goal. Congress would need to shell out $200 million a year for the lake over the next four years just to get the money in hand by 2022. It never has appropriated more than $153 million in any one year.
The Trump budget proposal isn’t even enough to keep the project on schedule for a 2025 completion, said U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney R-Okeechobee.
“While the Herbert Hoover Dike did get an increase in funding over last year, it still isn’t enough to fully fund construction and meet the project’s completion date,” he said in a statement.