Gov. Rick Scott announced a $90 million environmental project Wednesday morning to ease the flow of freshwater releases into Southwest Florida.
Speaking in Centennial Park in Fort Myers, Scott said the state would invest $30 million per year over three years to raise 2.6-miles of Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. The higher elevation will allow fresh water to be released south into the Everglades without the possibility of flooding the highway.
The project will be through the Florida Department of Transportation, bringing the state's share of the $180 million cost for the 2.6 miles of bridging to the $90 million committed. Scott said other things are being done to protect the state's estuaries as well.
"The state is doing the right thing. They are teaming up with the private sector and farms and doing things on public lands to store water so we can reduce this flow from Lake Okeechobee," said Scott.
He also pointed out that the federal government owes the State of Florida $1.6 billion in investments under a 50/50 cost sharing agreement. A lack of federal money has delayed repairs to the failing Herbert Hoover Dike System near Lake Okeechobee.
"They need to fix the dike, it's their job and their responsibility. It's the federal government's responsibility to fix the dike," said Scott.
Congressman Trey Radel, R-Southwest Florida, who serves on the Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure, said he is doing everything possible to secure federal funding for projects that protect water supplies.
"I will do everything I can to ensure I am fighting for the State of Florida and Southwest Florida to make sure we have a healthy environment, because at the end of the day, for us in Southwest Florida, a healthy environment means a healthy economy and jobs for all of us," said Radel.
Although the raising of Tamiami Trail is a step forward in sending more water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, local environmental officials agree it's a minimal effort.
"Moving more water south is part of the solution and while it's important, the amount of water that will be moved is a drop in the bucket," said Jennifer Hecker, manager of Natural Resource Policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
Hecker said Scott has only provided half of the Everglades restoration funds offered by his previous Republican counterparts.
She said approximately 210,000 acre/feet of water would be sent south but nearly one million acres needs to be moved to see a difference locally, leaving another 800,000 acre/feet of water.
The C-43 Reservoir Project would have a more a significant impact on Southwest Florida, by diverting an additional 200,000 acres, but the federal government has yet to authorize the funding to begin construction. Local environmental officials are hoping the U.S. House authorizes the project by Sept. 16.
Even though C-43 would stagger the freshwater releases into this region, Hecker said current plans for the reservoir have it only storing the water and not treating, meaning an algae bloom could develop in the stagnant water.
Alexis Meyer, local organizer for The Sierra Club, described the highway project as a first step.
"It's a good first step, but many other things need to be done," she said. "It's impacting businesses and our lifestyles. Tourism is our lifeblood in Florida."
She said there needs to be more regulation put on the companies who cause polluted waters, regulation on water quality, and getting the state to purchase the 180,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area before the option expires in October.