How Are County And Tourism Officials Preparing For Rainy Season
Keeping Southwest Florida’s water clean is an environmental and economic issue because murky shores during the offseason can be toxic to local businesses. Last summer, during a wet rainy season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped billions of gallons of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee, sending it flowing into the Caloosahatchee River and eventually the Gulf.
This year, local officials say discharges from Lake Okeechobee are inevitable. But they have asked for millions in financial resources for infrastructure to lessen the damage in the long term. Controlling flows into the Caloosahatchee River, storing excess water on public and private lands, and cleaning up the water before it hits our shores also are seen as ways to address the problem.
Lee County commissioners met this spring with state officials and legislators to request funding for Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee projects, including nearly $20 million infrastructure project for the 10,700-acre, C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir on Hendry Country. Also on the list: more than $2 million in sewer, stormwater, wetlands and water quality projects at Alico Road, Palmona Park, Nalle Grade Stormwater Park and Daniels Preserve.
Legislators included millions in sewer, stormwater, wetlands and water quality projects that Southwest Florida requested in the proposed $77.1 million state budget, which also included the $90 million for the Tamiami Trail project. Other efforts include “water farming,” which Kiker says the agriculture industry could use to build some barriers and store water in ponds.
This follows an announcement by Gov. Rick Scott after last’s year’s rainy season he was committing $90 million in state funds—half of what is needed—to replace a 2.6-mile segment of Tamiami Trail with a bridge so that water could flow into the Everglades rather than entering the Caloosahatchee Estuary (and St. Lucie Estuary on the east coast). The date for the work is uncertain because it is contingent on federal matching dollars that have yet to materialize. A series of public hearings and a Congressional hearing also focused on water quality. “This problem has been building and building for decades. I think we’ve definitely gotten everybody’s attention,” Lee County Commission Chairman Larry Kiker says.
After several dry summers in a row, summer 2013 brought to the forefront water quality issues and led to the aggressive steps, Kiker says. Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, adds: “It's a reminder that the system has a long way to go to be functioning properly.”
The ultra-rainy summer precipitated cancellations, particularly among in-state travelers who like to take a back-to-school getaway to our area but can switch their plans at the last minute. “It hurts business, no question,” Pigott says.
The Visitor and Convention Bureau has not changed its marketing plan for this summer (it advises hoteliers to be transparent and provide appropriate information to guests). Pigott says she is hopeful that last summer was an anomaly and indications this spring—barring no major storms or disasters—were that Lee County would have a record year. In 2013, 4.8 million people visited the county in 2014, spending $2.8 billion. “If we have a dry summer, then it'll be good news,” Pigott says. “If it's another wet summer, it could lead to a bad rap if visitors decide maybe summer isn't the best time to visit Fort Myers.”
Studies show that more than 85 percent of Lee County guests visit the beaches and three-quarters of visitors say a “clean, unspoiled environment” influenced their vacation decision. If the water is muddy this summer, repeat guests that hoteliers count on during the slow season could turn their backs on Southwest Florida. “If you come eight years in a row and had seven great summers and this last one was rainy, you're not going to hold it against the community,” Pigott says. “But if you had bad luck with the rain or the water quality was bad because it was raining so much and that happens back-to-back, then you might think about going somewhere else in August or September. That's our concern: Is this a pattern they start to see?”
Sanibel Island Mayor Kevin Ruane believes the area is in better shape for this upcoming rainy season. He notes efforts such as discussions with the Southwest Florida Management District to hold a few more inches of water in the lake. The agriculture industry, which Kiker says has been identified as one of the culprits, also could use “water farming” to build some barriers and store water in ponds. “It’s like turning a water faucet down,” Ruane says. “That’s what you really have to do.”