It seems odd to find heroes in the middle of a crisis that has no immediate solution. Heroes are supposed to sweep in and save the day -- and I don't believe anybody is going to be able to quick-fix the punishing fresh water releases from Lake Okeechobee.
But I'd like to say a word for the dogged determination of state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart. For a very long time, Harrell has done as much as anyone I know to get the attention of politicians and bureaucrats above or beyond her station to address the plight of the St. Lucie estuary. I believe she's moving the needle. In my book, she's a hero.
In a legislative delegation where Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart is king of the hill, it's easy to overlook the war Harrell fights behind the scenes.
Some in the House have told me there would have been no Legacy Florida had Harrell not persevered at the outset.
Legacy Florida, which the Legislature passed and the governor signed during the 2016 session, provides a dedicated funding source for the restoration of the Everglades and ending the releases from Lake Okeechobee. It flew through the process seamlessly, or so you might have thought. But it didn't happen all by itself. It followed literally dozens of meetings, many of which Harrell initiated, and many dozens of phone calls, emails, texts -- whatever it took to make sure the bill was right.
Unless you hibernated last winter, you'll know Legacy Florida was and is a very big deal.
Because of Legacy Florida, the Legislature will be required to appropriate a minimum 25 percent, or $200 million, for Everglades projects that implement the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), including the Central Everglades Planning Project, the Long-Term Plan and the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program. Important to note: Priority must be given to projects that will end the harmful release of water from Lake Okeechobee into the estuaries.
Throughout the legislative process, Harrell was too often left out of the limelight. Negron is the rising Senate president; it was his celebrity the cameras followed, and that's understandable. True, it doesn't matter who gets credit for a good and important bill as long as it passes -- and Negron and Harrell both live at Ground Zero for the algae crisis -- it still strikes me now as a little unfair that I've largely glided over Harrell's contribution without so much as a mention.
When Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio toured the miles upon miles of fetid algae blooms along shorelines in Martin and St. Lucie counties (though weather cut Nelson's tour short) Harrell spoke with each of them individually, stressing, "We need our federal partners to do their fair share of the 50-50 agreement for Everglades restoration."
She put in both senators' hands a copy of the letter she wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- signed by herself and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, and state Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, and Negron, urging the Corps to stop the releases. (See the letter in the attachment below.)
"We need a break -- two to three weeks to let the salt water back in to flush the algae out," she said.
Harrell emphasized to Nelson and Rubio -- and to the Corps -- that "one of the most impactful ways to bring immediately relief to our communities is to revisit the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS)."
Are engineers sure the lake can't hold another inch of water?
"Since it was last changed in 2008," Harrel said, "the people living in the immediate vicinity of Lake Okeechobee have benefited from tens of millions of dollars in upgrades to strengthen the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. Such enhancements should allow for Lake Okeechobee to store more water during wet periods and that could help to reduce the need for discharges to occur."
All I'm saying is, Harrell is everywhere, whispering to anyone who needs to be concerned about lake discharges, the ruination of the rivers and the crippling impact algae blooms and a forbidding estuary have on the economy of the Treasure Coast.
Next time you see her, I'll bet it will be in connection with something she's doing to instruct on algae or push for attention on the issue. I'm telling you, Harrell is into it, even when she's out of sight. Legacy Florida aside, I truly believe she's having a positive effect on politicians and bureaucrats who don't want to focus.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith