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The Environment


I have worked diligently over the past 16 years with many individuals and organizations and at all levels of government to effect changes to the policies concerning water management and river protection and restoration.

When I was first elected to office in 2002, my first priority was to revitalize interest in and get authorization for the Indian River Lagoon Plan, one of the very first components of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. It is our best chance and plan to clean up our local waterways, and it is a powerful priority for our residents. The former County Commission had ignored it. I traveled to Washington, D.C. with former County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla to meet with top federal officials about the future of the Indian River Lagoon Plan. We were told that the Plan was dead. Along with many others, I spent countless hours over the next 5 years advocating authorization of this worthy Plan. We finally turned the federal viewpoint around with our efforts. The Indian River Lagoon Plan was written into federal law in November 2007. Since then, the federal government has begun to fund their share of this restoration effort. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars have been invested in Martin County to begin the hard work of cleaning up Florida's water.

Many elected officials now realize the importance of restoring our waters, watersheds, water basins, and ecosystems and understand the disastrous consequences to our environment, quality of life, and economy if we ignore this catastrophe. I am proud of my environmental efforts and will continue to work tirelessly to promote the many environmental projects and initiatives necessary to preserve our unique ecosystem.

In 2005, I received the Public Service Award from the Martin County Conservation Alliance “for outstanding leadership and dedication to protect the Indian River Lagoon and uphold the Martin County Comprehensive Plan”. For 12 years, I served as Martin County’s representative on the Nine County Coalition (composed of Commissioners from the counties surrounding Lake Okeechobee).

Florida possesses some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. The Florida Everglades is a unique ecosystem found nowhere else on Earth. The estuaries here in Martin County – the Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie River, and the Loxahatchee River – provide spawning and nursery habitat for more marine species than anywhere in the United States. According to a recent article in the Florida Oceanographic Journal, over 200 species of fish have been recorded in our estuaries within 5 miles of the St. Lucie Inlet. This doesn’t include the marine mammals, birds, plants, corals, and mollusks that inhabit our waters.

The environmental significance of our local waters cannot be overstated. Our waterways are not isolated from the rest of Florida’s complex and interconnected hydrology. A delicate balance one existed in which fresh water from inland lakes, springs, and rivers and salty ocean water had natural barriers and, when mixed, did so in our estuaries in a ratio that was an ideal salinity for many species of aquatic organisms. Unfortunately, the development of Florida has caused the natural flow of our waters to be altered and that delicate balance forever disrupted.

Freshwater runoff from central Florida’s developments and agricultural enterprises dump into Lake Okeechobee. From there, excess amounts are released into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and sent into the Ocean and Gulf. This fresh water laden with fertilizers and pesticides alters the salinity in our estuaries and kills or sickens fish, oysters, seagrasses, and marine mammals.

In 2005, the massive releases from Lake Okeechobee flushed 855 billion gallons of polluted water per day into our rivers and estuaries, causing toxic blue-green algae blooms to blanket our rivers and sending the plume of contaminated water miles out to sea and along our beaches and over our nearshore reefs. Our rivers were so polluted that our health department put up signs and issued warnings against coming into contact with the water. That meant no swimming, skiing, fishing, windsurfing, or even wading. Fish, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and manatees were found ill and dead in all parts of our estuaries.

Residents will never forget the Lost Summer of 2013. The Army Corps started dumping polluted water from Lake Okeechobee on May 8 and didn't stop until November. The Health Department posted signs all over the estuaries warning against any contact with the water because it was toxic. Record numbers of manatees and seagrasses and oysters died. Just imagine telling your residents away from the precious resource they most revere for the entire summer. No swimming. No boating. No wakeboarding. No paddle boarding. No fishing.

On February 12, 2010, the United States Court of Federal Claims decided that “The St. Lucie River is, by all accounts, a national treasure.” Then, why are we being used as a cesspool?

2016 was an unprecedented emergency for our waterways. Thick and toxic blue-green algae blanketed our estuaries, all the way through the St. Lucie Inlet and onto our Atlantic Ocean beaches.

Now, in 2018, we are witnessing even more disgusting pollution in our rivers and lagoon. At present, over 90% of Lake Okeechobee is covered by blue-green algae. Florida Department of Protection tests have confirmed that the algae is Microcystis aeruginosa, which can contain the BMAA amino acid linked to liver disease, Alzheimer's disease, and Lou Gehrig's disease.

We are in the midst of a developing environmental crisis whose future consequences MUST be addressed. We MUST clean up our water. State and federal policies need to be radically reformed to protect us. Our future depends upon our actions taken right now.

Although not as well understood or appreciated as our waterways, our wetlands are a vital component of our hydrology. Not very long ago, wetlands were considered useless swamps or marshes, begging for drainage. We dug canals everywhere in south Florida and used the dredged materials from the canals to fill in the low spots. This made the land usable and valuable but turned out to be yet another of our modern manmade disasters.

Wetlands are nature’s sponges. During the wet season, they absorb rainwater and control flooding. They act as natural filters to clean the water as it soaks into the ground and recharges our underground drinking water aquifers. All potable water use in Martin County is from our underground aquifers. And, in the dry season, wetlands conserve water evaporation and recharge. They also provide essential habitat for countless animals, birds, fish, and reptiles.

This is why Martin County has, in the past, had such strong laws protecting our wetlands. We know that in order to protect our drinking water supply and the habitat we esteem here, we must protect our natural wetlands. We must continue to elect local officials who will refuse to further weaken our laws and allow additional destruction of this essential component of our hydrologic system.

The Indian River Lagoon plan when implemented will include 90,000 acres of restored wetlands. That is how important scientists found the value of wetlands in our future.

Our uplands are also of significant environmental importance. Martin County voters have repeatedly affirmed by referendum their desire to put environmentally sensitive lands into public ownership. Over the past 16 years when I’ve traveled several times each year to Washington, D.C. to advocate for passage and funding for the Indian River Lagoon Plan, I’ve spoken to House and Senate members, Office of Management and Budget officials, the Generals at the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, White House officials, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, and the Government Accountability Office. All agreed that Martin County’s willingness to reach first into our own pockets to provide the solutions to problems we didn’t cause is a very compelling reason to approve the authorization to purchase these lands for conservation and restoration.

To date, Martin County has partnered with State and Federal agencies to purchase thousands of acres of land for habitat preservation and river restoration. Twenty six percent of the total acreage in Martin County is now in public ownership.

Environmental restoration is slow and incredibly expensive.  It is very easy to become a skeptic.  Many decry the sluggish pace of our state and federal partners to accept their responsibilities to clean up this mess that they created.  And, residents are right to point out these facts.  But, pointing fingers makes no progress.

We have to keep the pressure on at both state and federal levels.

Some folks say that we will never clean up the rivers.  I strongly disagree.  It took mankind over 100 years to become experts at destroying our ecosystems.  If we are to survive, in the next 100 years, we are going to have to become experts at restoring ecosystems.  Lets start right here in Martin County.  Let's show the world what successful ecosystem restoration looks like.

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