JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Collaboration, innovation and long-term solutions were key discussion points at the 29th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference, where federal and state officials, environmental organizations and members of the public and academia came together to celebrate what's been accomplished so far, and discuss what needs to be done to continue making progress in Everglades restoration.
Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy, State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander Col. Alan Dodd were among the 300 people in attendance at the conference held Jan. 9-11 in Naples, Fla.
"Since I've been in my position, I'm honored to say that the Obama Administration has been committed to Everglades restoration," said Darcy, who also praised the efforts of the Everglades Coalition. "I want to congratulate the coalition for recognizing that the future is the only thing we should be looking to."
The theme of this year's conference was "Everglades Restoration: Protecting Coastal Communities," and topics of discussion ranged from climate change, nutrient pollution, restoration progress, sea level rise and water quality.
Jacksonville District Commander Col. Alan Dodd spoke on a panel entitled "Where is all the Water Coming From? A Coastal Perspective on Solutions for Water Management in the Northern Everglades and Lake Okeechobee." He provided an overview of the water management decisions the Corps has made this past wet season the importance of considering public safety in the decision-making process
"We can't get lake water out as quickly as it comes in -- it comes in six times faster than we can get it out," said Dodd. "When we make decisions today, we base it on where we think the lake will be 30-60 days out."
During the panel discussion, Dodd was asked for his position on the Senate Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin's recommendation to give the state of Florida authority over Lake Okeechobee regulatory releases when the risk of dike failure is less than 10 percent and to temporarily release authority to the federal government when the risk of failure exceeds this threshold.
"When we talk about getting up to 10 percent risk, water levels are getting higher than we can manage," said Dodd. "Responsibilities should not be handed over during a crisis."
Dodd was also asked about the committee's recommendation for Congressional assistance in legislation or rulemaking to revise the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, also known as LORS.
"It's the best system we have right now to balance all the various needs," said Dodd, who also made note that additional rehab work on the Herbert Hoover Dike needs to be completed prior to considering revising LORS. He also said the Corps is currently in the process of completing an assessment, known as the Dam Safety Modification Study, which is scheduled to be completed in 2015. The results of the study will be used to guide future rehabilitation efforts on the dike.
Also in attendance at the conference were members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District team. The Jacksonville District has the largest environmental restoration program within the Corps, and manages the Corps' Everglades restoration program.
At the "Caloosahatchee River: Getting the Water Right" panel discussion Jan. 11, Jacksonville District Planning and Policy Division Chief Eric Bush, discussed the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule and the public process involved in developing the regulation schedule.
"This is your Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, not the Corps," said Bush. "You adopted it."
Bush also stressed the importance of planning for climate change as part of restoration efforts. "If we don't consider climate extremes and climate vulnerabilities, by the time we complete these projects, we are going to have the same problems."
Restoration progress was discussed by Jacksonville District Ecosystem Branch Chief Howard Gonzales, Jr. at the Jan. 11 breakout session entitled, "From Restoration Visions to Ribbon cutting."
"As we're looking at the big picture across the nation, other projects propose restoration success, what we have (with the Everglades restoration program) is realized success," said Gonzales, who also walked conference attendees through the Corps' planning process and the importance of public participation. "When you hear that a document is available for public review, that is your opportunity to get involved. There are no comments that go unanswered. We take this process very seriously."
The Everglades Coalition Conference aimed to showcase the connection all coastal communities have with the Everglades and how Everglades restoration is central to Florida's future. A steady theme throughout the conference was the need for everyone to do their part to help restore this irreplaceable ecosystem and that not one single agency or individual can accomplish this feat alone.