TALLAHASSEE - Storing water on ranch land remains a primary short-term option for a Senate committee as it considers ways to lessen the harmful impacts of ongoing Lake Okeechobee water releases into estuaries on both sides of Florida.
The search for a quick fix comes as the releases, while being reduced in size, are intended to ease the stress on the lake's frail dike system.
State officials said short-term solutions are needed to remove harmful nitrogen-heavy muck and other toxins that have been associated with the deaths of manatees and other wildlife in the estuaries and have reportedly devastated local tourism and property values.
"The solution is to buy up the land that we need to buy to create a sheet flow across the Everglades into the Florida Bay," offered long-time Martin County resident Bill Summers. "You need to tell the sugar land, 'You know where to go.'"
While long-term solutions have been in the works for years, other temporary fixes presented to the Senate Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin on Thursday included cleaning the water that comes into the lake from the Kissimmee River; reducing nutrients from septic tanks; raising the allowed water levels in canals by a few inches; and getting Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency for the lake to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reevaluate the lake protection plan.
"We have to focus on the base hits, not the home runs," Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said.
Using vast ranch and agricultural lands as storage areas would reduce the amount of water sent downstream when a release is needed.
The South Florida Water Management District is already using a couple of ranch properties as a means to divert water from the lake, and another 19 ranchers have already presented proposals, said District Interim Executive Director Ernie Barnett.
The Senate committee also wants to look into using publicly owned land, such as the marshy 20,000 acre Allapattah Flats Wildlife Management Area, which is jointly owned by the district and Martin County.
Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, requested a list of potential short-term fixes from the South Florida Water Management District by the end of this week, including potential price tags.
Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said the biggest question will be the finances.
"Nobody has mentioned the quantity of money," Hays said.
A report from the select committee is due Nov. 4.
The committee road meeting came as a response to cries about the economic and health impacts from the lake releases on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, as people have been told to avoid parts of the St. Lucie River due to potentially toxin-producing algae blooms.
Many of the residents from along the Indian River Lagoon attending the meeting pointed to years of problems in area waterways tied to the lake releases.
State Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, told the committee that "water is our lifeblood."
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., said Congress needs "to be sold" on the importance of funding the long-term cleanup.
In response to a request by Negron, Murphy said he would again reach out to President Barack Obama - who in February golfed along the St. Lucie River at the gated Floridian Yacht and Golf Club - to get the federal government to respond to the crisis.
"The fact that the river has been declared toxic, that's an embarrassment," Murphy said.
Prior to the marathon hearing, a coalition of environmental groups called for immediate action to clean the river rather than conduct more studies. The coalition also labeled a proposal by Scott to spend $40 million to speed construction of a water-storage area along the St. Lucie River as a "Band-Aid."
"It only addresses a tiny fraction of the sewage, manure, and fertilizer runoff - called 'nutrient pollution' - that comes from within the St. Lucie watershed," the coalition said in a release. "And it does nothing to reduce the nutrient pollution sliming all the other, rivers, springs, lakes and bays all over Florida."
Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer said the state is at fault for allowing filthy water to enter Lake Okeechobee rather than controlling the problem at its source and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for failing to fix the 80-year-old reservoir system "that's operated at the behest of Big Sugar, instead of for the citizens of this state."
The Army Corps has been releasing water since May to lessen stress on the Herbert Hoover Dike system around the lake and thus avoid a scenario similar to when levees and flood walls broke in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Corps announced Wednesday the releases are being reduced due to drier weather. However, that could change if storms approach South Florida.
Negron questioned the autonomy of the Army Corps in deciding the water level in the lake, suggesting that Florida scientists and others should be part of the final decision-making process.
"The risk of the dike having a problem and causing flooding, we can quantify what those risks are," Negron said. "When the lake is at 15 feet the risk is 1 percent. The risk of catastrophe east and west is 100 percent, and so to me there has to be a balancing of the potential break of the levee against the certain damaging of the environment."
Col. Alan Dodd, commander and district engineer of the Army Corps, Jacksonville District, defended the decision-making of the federal agency that has spent $728 million to maintain the dike since 2007, while more than $1 billion is still needed.
"There are multiple decision points where action has to be taken and decisions have to be made," Dodd said. "We have some of the best people in the nation working on this in the Jacksonville district."
Dodd said the Army Corps tries to keep the lake level between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet, since a major hurricane could quickly increase the level to 19 feet. When the lake is slightly above 18.5 feet, the risk of failure is at 45 percent, Dodd said.
Dodd said the most vulnerable section of the dike remains the area between Port Mayaca in western Martin County and Belle Glade in western Palm Beach County.