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Fix water quality or Florida tourism will suffer, fishing and boating industries warn

Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has been a champion for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that experts say is needed to clean up the Everglades. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]

Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has been a champion for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that experts say is needed to clean up the Everglades. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]

TALLAHASSEE — The leaders of one of the nation's largest outdoors companies, a major boat manufacturer, and tourism industry officials met with Gov. Rick Scott and legislators Wednesday to make the case that urgent action is needed to end the toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

They detailed how their industries suffered from the impact of the guacamole-looking toxic algae blooms and state of emergency last year. They offered statistics on how Florida is losing business to other states, warned about the social media buzz over Florida's bad water and suggested that if things don't turn now, it may take years to reverse.

"If Florida is known as a destination of subpar water quality or bad water, it would absolutely crush our local economy," said John Lai, representing the Lee County Development Association and the Sanibel/Captiva Chamber of Commerce. He said that one in five jobs in his region relies heavily on tourism but, in the last 30 years, he has watched "the complete degradation of Florida estuaries and water quality."

Scott Deal, president and CEO of Maverick Boat Group, a boat manufacturer based in Fort Pierce, said his company is one of only about 50 manufacturers that build boats for fishing in shallow waters, such as Florida Bay and the Keys.

"Those areas are dying," he told Senate President Joe Negron in a meeting in Negron's office. As a result, business for the $10.3 billion boating industry, with its 55,000 jobs, is off significantly.

Negron, R-Stuart, is putting his heft behind SB 10, a massive plan aimed at preventing discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by building a water storage reservoir in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area. The reservoir is intended to cleanse the water, send it south into the Everglades and ultimately Florida Bay, where sea grass beds have been dying because of the lack of fresh water.

Congress also would have to authorize the federal government to spend another $1.2 billion to complete the project.

But the bill is facing hostility from sugar growers and the agricultural community in the area that would see up to 60,000 acres of productive farm land be converted to reservoirs.

Perk Perkins, CEO of Vermont-based Orvis Company, which specializes in products for the fly-fishing industry, said that almost 10 percent of all business comes out of Florida.

"This is important — one of the most important natural resources in the country — and it's urgent because the stars have aligned this legislative session to give us more hope than we've ever had before,'' he said.

He said Orvis donates 5 percent of its pre-tax profits to environmental causes and this year it has identified the Everglades Foundation's Now or NeverGlades campaign as "the most important thing in the country to get behind."

Negron said that he believes there is consensus on the need for a southern reservoir and the questions left are "when we should have southern storage and where should it be?" The bill has already passed two committees and last week was expanded to include as much as $3.3 billion in bonding for water projects across the state. It will be heard next in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Perkins said an estimated $100,000 will be offered for customers to match and donate to the campaign.

"Our customers, our peers, our guides — doesn't matter if they're guiding in Idaho, they know that this is a really important issue," he said. "Fishermen are creatures of hope and thank you for giving us hope. It's been 30 years since the fisheries decline for Florida Bay and the Keys and hope has been drying up but it's never been higher than it is right now."

The meetings were organized by the Everglades Foundation which is lobbying for Negron's plan. The business leaders also met with Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and his Rules Committee chair, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, and several other House and Senate leaders.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is designated to succeed Negron in 2020, said an effort is underway to find more land to use for storage north of the lake to reduce the amount of active farm land needed to be purchased.

Lai said a poll of Lee County hotels found that over 92 percent lost more than 100 room nights last year because of the toxic algae bloom.

"From people checking out early, from people canceling their reservations or just demanding their money back at the end of their stay," he said. "Now, this year, we've seen the falloff of visitors not booking the way that they would in probably one of the best weather years we've had."

He warned that people often rely on social media reviews when they take a vacation, and if the word continues to get out that Florida's water is dangerous, people will bypass the state. "It's not a east-coast or west-coast issue," he said. "It's all of Florida."

Scott has trumpeted his support for economic development and a tax cut for manufacturers but, Deal — the boat manufacturer — warned that if there is another release that poisons the waterways, it will result in lost property value and home equity, and that will cost more jobs.

"The potential negative repercussions of all these environmental issues trump anything else," Deal said, adding that pitting the economic needs of the communities in the agricultural area against those on the coast who depend on tourism is a mistake.

"People who are obstructionists present things in zero-sum realities, and that's not what the reality is," he said. "For one side to achieve a benefit it doesn't have to come at a cost to the other side. We're looking for solutions that work for every side because, absent that, we are not going to be able to get anything accomplished."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

Fix water quality or Florida tourism will suffer, fishing and boating industries warn 03/16/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 8:21pm]
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