By Larry Kiker
Fort Myers Beach
Lee County Commissioner, District 3
An unusual event occurred in Washington last week.
The House of Representatives voted 417-3 to pass the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRDA). Reps. Trey Radel (R) and Pat Murphy (D) gathered bipartisan support for this bill during the recent shutdown in an already scheduled congressional briefing. A total of 25 senators and representatives attended the session, each acknowledging our water quality issues in support of our efforts, including our own U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (who could teach a course on our environment).
Directed by the Lee County Board of Commissioners, I joined Lee County Natural Resources Director Roland Ottolini and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane (who had previously worked with Fort Myers Beach Mayor Alan Mandel at the state level) with testimonials alongside Florida Reps. Matt Caldwell and Heather Fitzenhagen. Needless to say, Lee County was well represented and well received.
To be sure, our local water quality issues are now recognized at a national level, evidenced by the passing of this bill.
This legislation signifies a major step of the continuing efforts of county commissioners and staff that, for the last seven years, have been advocating for a water bill and authorization of the Caloosahatchee (C-43) West Reservoir Project along with other projects including much needed work on the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee.
The C-43 Project is a centerpiece restoration and storage project for Southwest Florida. It is perhaps the most important Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan project for our region. In fact, over the last several years the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have invested thousands of man hours and over $125 million on this project. Significantly, all of the design and permitting for this project has been completed. In other words, this project is shovel-ready.
Obviously there were many environmental experts speaking in Washington; however, Ruane and I included the economic component as it relates to our immediate area. This becomes an important factor when looking at not only the revenues generated, but more specifically to the amount of money required to fund these projects — well over $1 billion.
A clean and healthy environment is one of the most critical cogs of the economic engine that drives Lee County. The $3 billion annual contribution that tourism brings to Lee depends largely on our unique natural resources. If our resources are not protected from environmental degradation, tourists find other places to spend their dollars. Surveys show that approximately 90 percent of our visitors choose Lee County because of our beaches and water. Our challenge as leaders is to ensure the protection of our natural resources without making growth and managed development cost prohibitive.
While federal/state projects like the C-43 are critical, the Lee County Commission has been on the forefront of investing in conservation and environmental projects and programs. Lee has invested nearly $110 million in water quality-associated projects and programs in just the last five years.
So the journey continues.
Passage of the WRRDA bill is indeed a milestone along the course. Rest assured that the Lee County commissioners are committed to working with our legislative delegation, our county neighbors and our stakeholders so funding for these programs and projects are completed.
Special thanks go to Radel for his continued leadership on this subject as we continue to count on him to help address the newly arrived flood insurance catastrophe that will affect us all!
Thanks to everyone who has worked so hard to see this day, and thanks to the people of Lee County who continue to support our efforts to protect our vital natural resources.