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  1. Opinion

Column: New reservoir needed to stop algae blooms

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photographs of thick, blue-green algae on Florida's central coasts that dominated national news coverage this summer spoke volumes.

Florida likes to portray itself as a tourist's paradise with pristine beaches, magnificent fishing and spectacular wildlife. Yet from the lower Indian River Lagoon on the east coast to the waters off Fort Myers and Sanibel-Captiva on the west, a more accurate picture would show beaches and marinas coated in a putrid, toxic goo with the consistency of guacamole.

The algae blooms are spoiling both our coasts and the Florida Bay to our south. This year, the toxic goo compelled Gov. Rick Scott to declare a "state of emergency" in Martin, Palm Beach and St. Lucie Counties on the Atlantic Coast and in Lee County on the Gulf. Florida has been under an algae-induced state of emergency for more than 240 days this year. Algae has been reported at 44 different Florida locations — but it is only November and we are still counting.

Beaches have been closed, fishing has been restricted, tourism-related businesses have suffered and workers have been laid off. Fish and wildlife have died, and people have gotten so sick they were forced to wear respirators to work near the water.

We know the cause of this crisis and we surely know its consequences. For more than 20 years, we have also known how to solve the problem and since 2014, we have had ample money to do so.

The algae is caused when billions of gallons of phosphorus- and nitrogen-laden water from Lake Okeechobee is released as a flood control measure into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Under the blazing Florida sun, these nutrients stimulate the overgrowth of plant material — a blue-green algae known as "cyanobacteria" that suffocates seagrass and kills fish, wildlife and domestic pets. In humans, it can cause nausea and vomiting if ingested, and symptoms of rash or hay fever if touched or inhaled. Drinking water that contains these toxins can cause long-term liver disease and if it gets into an open wound, it can lead to a staph infection.

Nearly 20 years ago, an unprecedented collaboration of scientists and officials from more than 30 federal and state agencies recommended construction of a massive water storage reservoir within the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. Its purpose would be to hold excess freshwater, alleviating the toxic discharges and storing it so that it can be cleansed and sent south, where it is desperately needed during the dry winter months.

The federal government has already agreed to fund 50 percent of the project, and the project was authorized nearly 16 years ago.

As for the state's share, voters in 2014 approved Amendment 1, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative. By a 3 to 1 margin, they set aside between $648 million to $1.26 billion annually to purchase land to protect water resources in the EAA — a dedicated source of funding that is more than adequate to fund land acquisition for the reservoir.

In the face of this year's worsening algae blooms, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prodded the state to expedite the planning process so the project can move forward. Yet even that gesture was met with icy silence from Tallahassee. The South Florida Water Management District claims it cannot possibly begin planning the new reservoir until 2021.

Incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has seen his district significantly affected by the algae, will introduce legislation to move forward with the EAA Reservoir when the Legislature convenes in March.

Thousands of Floridians have expressed support for the measure by signing the #NowOrNeverglades Declaration, and the Everglades Foundation organized a 12-day, 21-city bus tour in South and Central Florida to increase public awareness.

The Legislature should prioritize Negron's proposal. Experts from every scientific discipline have confirmed its need, thousands of Floridians support construction and the state has a dedicated revenue stream to pay for it.

The EAA Reservoir project is more than 16 years overdue. It's time Florida's politicians do their jobs, because until now, the only thing missing from the picture has been a willingness on their part to act.

Eric Eikenberg is CEO of the Everglades Foundation.

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