By Ryan A. Rossi
I’m a Florida native. Born and raised here, I still live in my hometown of Boca Raton. As an adjunct professor at Palm Beach State College, educating people is one of my greatest passions. So is the issue of water preservation here in our state. As the director and founder of the South Florida Water Coalition, it is my mission to educate residents about the importance of protecting our water supply.
For months now, I have been advocating in our state legislature for Senate Bill 2508, which deals with environmental resource appropriations and water management of Lake Okeechobee. It has been a controversial bill because so many have a stake in the outcome of this legislation – including municipalities, agriculture groups and environmentalists.
When these groups get together it can ignite a political firestorm. Like most fires, water can douse the flames. To extinguish this fire, legislation is required; specifically, laws detailing who will control Lake Okeechobee and how to manage it.
Senate Bill 2508 is important for certain municipalities in our area, particularly the City of West Palm Beach and the Town of Palm Beach, both of whom heavily rely on Lake Okeechobee as a backup water supply resource when a drought impacts the region. A decade ago, drought conditions nearly crippled these areas of Palm Beach County, to the point that emergency services were concerned about running out of water.
During a press conference earlier this year, the City of West Palm Beach’s fire chief said, “a safe and reliable water supply is a core tenet of a municipal fire department operation.” She went on to explain, “Today, we want to ensure that the impacts of a drought, such as we experienced in 2011, never occur again. It is our job, as the people who protect the residents of this community, to remove any risks in the future.”
Another component of SB 2508 is to keep water management within the boundaries of our local and state agencies, rather than the federal government. Don’t get me wrong, Florida must still depend on the hard and tedious work of the Army Corps of Engineers. This group ensures that critical storage projects, Everglades restoration and dike repairs are completed with precision, to sustain our greatest natural assets. However, our state must have the ability to manage our water as these projects happen.
Opponents say the bill protects agricultural interests rather than the environment. Additionally, some environmental groups suggest that this bill still needs a provision that keeps Lake O levels low and water moving south to protect coastal estuaries. In contrast, agricultural communities require higher water levels to ensure constant irrigation of the crops that feed families across America and sustain local economies throughout South Florida. Now that you know what is at stake, it’s easy to see why this issue is so important to so many.
The good news is that provisions made to the original bill led state legislators to unanimously pass this legislation. The way the bill is now, local agencies will control the water supply because they know our water best. And the storage, treatment, and movement of Lake O water south will serve all stakeholders.
All that remains now is for Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign this bill into law. I hope he does. This is how government should work: a compromise between multiple interests, with a focus on what’s best for the people and the future of our water.
Ryan A. Rossi, of Boca Raton, is director of the South Florida Water Coalition. He wrote this for the Palm Beach Post, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.