State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, asked federal lawmakers Thursday to give control of Lake Okeechobee to Florida during a congressional hearing on the adverse economic and health impacts of water releases into estuaries on both sides of the state.
The request to wrest control of the lake from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came as members of Congress, working amid the shadow of the ongoing federal-government shutdown, repeatedly expressed bipartisan support for longstanding efforts to clean waterways east and west of the lake and to secure funding so more water can be directed to the south.
"I'm sorry that we have a dysfunctional Washington," U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., told South Florida residents and officials who trekked to Washington for the hearing.
"This is an issue that affects all of our state. When people in Great Britain or Germany or in Chicago, New York come and visit, our snowbirds, our vacationers that come visit and see this, I don't care if it's the east coast or the west coast, it affects Florida," Radel continued. "We don't want those trips to be canceled, we want more people to come to enjoy our beaches and help our economy."
Radel hosted the hearing with U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla.
Many members of Florida's congressional delegation, along with members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and other federal lawmakers, made appearance and brief statements throughout the morning hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building.
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the South Florida water situation "an issue of national significance ... that requires our immediate attention."
Pelosi was among those lending support to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which has been approved by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The act includes funding for a reservoir to serve as a holding area for freshwater releases coming from the lake.
Speakers from South Florida governments and environmental organizations testified in support of restoration projects that will redirect the overflow from the lake. A few residents, given time to speak, pushed for the federal government to acquire agricultural land south of the lake where the overflow could be stored and cleaned before it reaches the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., defended the farmers, ranchers and sugar growers south of the lake, saying they have reduced pollutants from exiting their land.
Negron, one of four state legislators who spoke during the session, pitched his idea for the state to take control of the lake, saying the intent is to have more consensus from different state agencies before releases are made.
"The Army Corps of Engineers has been running this project for decades; they have failed, and they need to be replaced with those of us in Florida that we can vote for or against and people that have our best interest at heart," Negron said.
The Army Corps, which didn't have representatives at the meeting due to the shutdown, tries to maintain the water level of the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet to lessen stress on the dike, which is basically a 30-foot-high earthen structure that surrounds the lake.
Residents who live along the estuaries have been fighting the Army Corps over the impact of the releases since May.
Reps. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, and Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, both appeared as panel members.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, was invited to speak by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.
Negron received a little more support in asking members of the state's congressional delegation to urge President Barack Obama to return to the Treasure Coast for a firsthand look at the millions of gallons of polluted water that have been dumped out of the lake.
Obama played a round of golf in February with Houston Astros owner Jim Crane and golfer Tiger Woods at the Floridian, a secluded and exclusive golf course community along the Martin-St. Lucie County line.
"Nine holes of that golf course is right along the St. Lucie River," Negron said, "so he knows our community well."
Negron's request repeated an unanswered Sept. 24 letter by Gov. Rick Scott to Obama.
The request is hoped to spur federal funding for projects that clean the water coming out of the lake.
Radel supported the request, asking other members of the state's congressional delegation to write a bipartisan letter to Obama asking him to see the impacts of the water releases on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. No agreement was reached on the letter.