Gov. Rick Scott issues state of emergency for Lee, Martin counties following tour of algae blooms

Chad Gillis
The News-Press
Gov. Rick Scott answers questions after touring the algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River on Monday, July 9, 2018.

Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency due to the algae blooms raging in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. 

"It’s frustrating right now and I’m sure if you’re a boater or fisherman or someone who wants to enjoy the water, it’s frustrating to see this in the water," Scott said while on a boat tour of the Caloosahatchee Monday. 

The declaration includes seven counties: Lee, Hendry, Glades, Martin, Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Palm Beach. 

Scott largely blamed the federal government for the water quality problems, saying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been too slow in completing Everglades restoration projects. 

His trip to Fort Myers comes one day after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Miami) asked President Donald Trump to instruct the Army Corps to stop discharges and three days after Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Orlando) visited the Fort Myers area.

Scott and Nelson are vying for the same Senate seat. 

"I still get frustrated with the federal government because they’ve not been a great partner," Scott said. "If they had funded all the projects that should be funded like the state has been doing over the last seven-and-a-half years, some of these events might not have happened."

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This is the third year in a row the region has suffered from excess water flows from Lake Okeechobee and algae blooms.

El Nino rains in January of 2016 dumped more than a foot of rain across the state during the peak of tourism season, while 2017 water quality issues were caused by heavy rains in June followed by Hurricane Irma. 

Some water quality scientists say the algae bloom this year is being fed by nutrients in the Everglades system that were stirred up by Irma. 

But most of the water flowing down the Caloosahatchee River since May has come from the watershed, lands that drain into the river. 

The Army Corps stopped flows to both rivers Monday in order to get a better look at the entire system. 

"As we look at operations in the system, we believe we can pause discharges for a short time to get additional input from staff on available options for moving water," said Col. Jason Kirk, the Corps' top officer in Florida, in a press release. "We have implemented higher stages in the canal along the Tamiami Trail and we have implemented deviations to generate flexibility in operations at the southern end of the system to move additional water south. We want to ensure we are using all available flexibility before we resume discharges east and west."

Moving water south more closely mimics the historic flow of water to the Everglades.

Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman was on the river tour and said the water drainage system in the 16-county South Florida Water Management District needs to be managed with more flexibility. 

Hamman said the combination of Lake Okeechobee flows and local stormwater runoff is often too much for the Caloosahatchee. 

"We know that the water from Lake Okeechobee feeds the algae blooms but we also know that water running off our natural landscape also feeds the algae blooms," Hamman said. "All the water that drains off where we built our homes has to go somewhere."

Gov. Rick Scott took a boat tour of the algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River on Monday, July 9, 2018.

He said Everglades restoration projects that help water flow south, instead of east and west, are starting to take shape. 

Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environment Protection, said the state plans to install new water monitoring stations in the Caloosahatchee River to get more information about the blooms and water flows. 

"Right now we don’t have a lot of water coming from the lake at this very moment but we have a lot of water coming off the basin and it’s a very large basin feeding this area," Valenstein said. "So what we’re doing is putting out six new flow monitor devices that will really help us pinpoint and learn more about how the hydrology is working and where water is coming from."

Some have questioned how and when the state notified the public about the bloom, saying too little information was posted too late. 

Valenstein said the state plans to increase its focus on the Caloosahatchee and the people who live, work and play here.  

"We’ll be ramping up testing," Valenstein said. "We want to make sure if you’re a family in the area that we want to get that information out."

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Twitter. 

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