By Holly Raschein

As published in the Miami Herald, May 10, 2019

Floridians demanded action from Tallahassee on Everglades restoration and the toxic algae blooms plaguing too many waterways. We agreed in the Florida House and Senate, and, working with Governor DeSantis, we took bold action this year to get results.

As chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, I am proud of the historic $682 million in funding provided to protect Florida’s water resources, restore the Everglades and offer immediate relief for harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges that feed algae blooms.

This funding supports multiple ongoing water quality and restoration efforts, including the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), the Central Everglades Plan (CEP), Restoration Strategies, and the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Plans.

In addition, we appropriated $50 million for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project to significantly reduce the discharges of excess water from the lake to the coastal estuaries. As summer looms, it is critical to deploy solutions to mitigate the possibility of another massive algal bloom.

The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan is a state-federal partnership under CERP and is located north of the lake. The plan will achieve the CERP goal of 80 percent reduction in discharge events from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries, when combined with the CEP.

The plan calls for 13,000 acres of shallow water retention, construction of 80 Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells, in addition to 4,700 acres of wetlands restoration.

Critically, the South Florida Water Management District can now construct the plan immediately to effectively stop the damaging east and west coastal discharges from Lake Okeechobee on lands it already owns.

The ASR wells provide more than 90 percent of the water storage and flow attenuation needed to dramatically reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee that cause devastating algal blooms in the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

With the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan, the Legislature is now funding Everglades restoration efforts north, south, east and west of the lake.

Storing and treating water north of the lake is essential to winning the fight against toxic algae and completing Everglades restoration. The $50 million in funding for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project complements water storage efforts already underway across the Everglades watershed, from dispersed water management and water farming projects to the EAA southern seservoir.

These Everglades and Lake Okeechobee projects are connected to restoring the health of Florida Bay through a more-natural flow of water south. Clean, fresh water is needed to balance salinity levels and maintain a healthy ecosystem critical to the environment and economy of the Florida Keys.

This year’s landmark environmental budget offers a comprehensive array of solutions to Florida’s water challenges. Our sensitive waterways cannot afford continued summers choked by algae blooms or red tide. These toxic menaces not only threaten vulnerable ecosystems, they also pose serious health risks and weaken our economy.

The state of Florida is doing its part to restore the Everglades and stop Lake Okeechobee discharges. We ask our federal partners to continue to do theirs. Only together can we complete the crucial restoration projects needed to stop the water crisis.

Water is our most precious natural resource, and the Florida Legislature is committed to protecting it. The record funding we provided this year marks a significant step forward in the fight.

Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, represents District 120, in Monroe and South Miami-Dade counties, in the Florida Legislature. She chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.