Rep. Patrick Murphy Talks About Nasty Lake Okeechobee Pollution

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Yesterday afternoon, Rep. Patrick Murphy gave us a shout to talk about the briefing he's holding in Washington, D.C., today for members of Congress regarding the nasty pollution that's flowing from Lake Okeechobee through two rivers and killing everything all the way to the east and west coasts of Florida. Scores of activists also traveled up by bus and plane to sit in on the proceedings.

Here's our convo, slightly edited:

New Times So, are you bored up there in D.C. with nothing going on, the government shut down? Murphy: Once we get through this big fly-in tomorrow, it will probably be a lot quieter. Obviously, I'm new here, but it's eerie. You walk around town and no one's here... It's a weird feeling, and no one [in Congress] really knows where we're going [in terms of resolving the shutdown crisis.]

Did the shutdown hurt your agenda? Can you still get into the meeting rooms? We were able to lock down the room, and there were some minor tweaks to the schedule -- some people from some of the federal agencies [Army Corps, the USDA] will not participate, so it's a little bit of a loss. We can still get out our message and get comments.

Everglades Restoration and water flow in Lake Okeechobee have been issues for decades, but when did you first start to realize that things are reaching a crisis point now -- like, "this is serious"? Growing up in Florida Keys, the Everglades was my backyard... I have two uncles that were fishermen. I grew up fishing and diving. I saw how the environment is connected to the economy and vice versa... [Everglades restoration and Lake Okeechobee pollution] was an issue throughout the campaign, especially in this district, really from Orlando south. During the campaign, I had many conversations about this with constituents who wanted me to make it a top agenda item. See Also: Photos Show How Nasty Lake Okeechobee Pollution Is

Then we had 200 percent above-average rainfall this summer, so the Army Corps of Engineers has had to release water from the lake... They've put considerable investment in the lake in repairing it, but it's still not to the point it can hold the water it was originally designed to. There have been years and years of pollution, but all this freshwater caused a release of this polluted, dirty water. You end up with this toxic water. Three places have been declared toxic. It's an embarrassment. This is not a Third World country.

What's the solution? Are there any immediate fixes, or just keep on moving with pieces of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan? We can try to get changes in the water bill -- the water resources bill -- in order to get some of the big projects funded. That's a bill that goes through the transportation committee and is reauthorized every five to seven years. We want to try to ensure that projects in our neck of the woods are included. There's the Lake Okeechobee release schedule -- we'll proceed to get that reevaluated. Lake Okeechobee covers about 740 square miles. The Army Corps is looking at strengthening the Hoover Dike. It might be a good idea for the Army Corps to reevaluate how much water the lake and the dike can hold -- say, now it's 16 feet. If that lake can hold 17 or 17.5 feet, it could help in minimizing the discharges. And the C-44 project -- basically, you have these two rivers flowing east and west from Lake Okeechobee. The St. Lucie River goes through my district. Imagine a little side river that funnels it into this big storage retention area -- the dirty water gets diverted, treated for few days, and can be released as clean water. That was authorized by Congress. The [companion] C-43 project goes through Naples and was just authorized in Congress or is up for authorization. There are also some very specific projects down near Broward and Palm Beach like raising the Tamiami Trail to allow water to flow under it. Even if projects are funded or approved, [they take a long time to complete].

Wow, sounds complicated. It took quite a while to get a grasp on all of it. I've been hearing from scientists and engineers. I want to hear from them and make sure we are prioritizing the right projects. The ones that we're looking at are the C-44 -- phase one is done, and phase two is costing [millions.] Things have changed, and it's tougher for members to get specific projects funded, so a lot of them have to come through the White House. One example is that the USDA is in charge of water conservation areas. In my area, all these farmers that used to grow citrus -- their industry has been devastated in the last ten years. They're saying, let us store three to four feet of water so it never has to be [mixed with the polluted lake water and] discharged. The USDA says, "Good idea; we'll pay you a certain price per acre." So we're working with the administration to get grant money allocated to the USDA for that.

Which members of Congress said they'd come to the meeting? Things are so weird right now. Whichever ones I've talked to said they would come: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings, Kathy Castor, Lois Frankel.

The Florida reps. Yeah, basically I lined up all the Democrats, and Trey Radel lined up the Republicans. Twenty-seven Floridians.

Nelson and Rubio? Nelson, [I think so]. It sounds like [Nancy} Pelosi will come by. I haven't heard from Rubio.

What about the piece of Everglades Restoration that involves buying sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee? Isn't there an October 12 deadline to purchase that? There was a deal made under Charlie Crist -- he made a deal with agriculture to buy a large portion of the land and theoretically send water south where it used to go. That deal has certain triggers, and the understanding was that state might not have money right away. There will be another chance where the land can be bought for X amount of money. So if that day comes and goes, there will be another deadline -- of course, the price goes up. It's really a state deadline.

Where is Rick Scott in all this? I've reached out to him about this. He came and visited and saw devastation. He's sending Herschel Vineyard [the head of the Department of Environmental Protection to my summit]. He'll be presenting. I'm not sure exactly what he's going to stay. I'm encouraged. There are some matching agreements between the state and federal government -- some cases where the state has spent on restoration but the feds haven't and vice versa.

Rick Scott has gutted DEP. I've read some of the articles about it. The state has lessened funding for environmental agencies... That ball's in his court -- I don't want to criticize him. He's stepping up now -- at least, that's what I hope.

Are you hoping that a state of emergency is declared for Florida? The state has to declare -- the governor has to declare it. Then he asks the president.

Have you talked to the Fanjuls or sugar growers? We have a scientist from some of these areas coming who works with all agriculture -- he will be presenting. My whole message here is that everyone has to be at the table. I don't want to vilify sugar or the Army Corps. These problems have been decades in the making... If we single someone out, it's [not productive.]

What's the most shocking thing you've seen personally of the pollution? Oysters can filter 50 gallons of water a day -- each oyster -- so I went out with Chris Zudovsky, a commissioner in St Lucie, to lay oyster beds. He gets these little tiny cuts. By the time we get to the dock, he says "Holy cow, I got an infection!" He's got these huge lesions and had to go to the hospital for emergency antibiotics for the polluted water.

And businesses are suffering near you? Yeah, for every dollar spent on the environment, it comes back three to two dollars. But now, charter fishermen, paddleboard rentals, diving --- all that's slowed down. Expensive real estate values are down. Hotels along the river are struggling.

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