If Lake Okeechobee discharges and the algae blooms they cause are allowed to "continue unabated," Florida could be "fundamentally altered," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Thursday.
Like Rust Belt cities that lost the auto industry, Florida communities rely on clean water to promote the tourism industry and keep up property values, Rubio said.
"It could take a generation for those communities to come back," the Republican senator told TCPalm after meeting privately with public officials and local environmental leaders at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam Thursday morning.
At the dam, about 1.4 billion gallons of water are pouring into the St. Lucie River daily.
An algae bloom sampled there Aug. 23 was nearly 50 times more toxic than the acceptable level for recreational contact. The bloom had mostly subsided by Thursday.
Neither the public nor the media was notified of the meeting in advance because Rubio was uncertain which memorial service he'd attend for the late Sen. John McCain.
The meeting was arranged "at the last minute, almost on the fly," Rubio told TCPalm. "I didn't want to schedule a public event and then have to cancel it. It would look like I was backing out."
Gov. Rick Scott was criticized when he scheduled an Aug. 10 tour of the algae on the St. Lucie River in Stuart, but stayed on a boat to avoid protesters and the media, who were forced to follow in another boat.
Aerial images show Lake Okeechobee, C-44 Canal blanketed in algae
Stalled in Senate
Rubio said he's "cautiously optimistic" the Senate will approve legislation this fall authorizing a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to cut discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
The U.S. House approved the bill, called the Water Resources Development Act, in June.
Rubio said "a single senator," North Carolina Republican Richard M. Burr, is holding up the Senate vote.
Burr won't allow a vote on the water bill until he gets a commitment for a vote on his own legislation to permanently reauthorize a program to protect national parks, water resources and wildlife areas, according to Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., newspaper and website published when Congress is in session.
To speed up the process, Rubio said, legislative leaders are working on a compromise version of the water bill so when the Senate approves it, it will be something the House can live with. That way, a compromise won't have to be negotiated after the Senate vote.
"Once it comes up for a vote," Rubio said, "it will pass very quickly."
The project still will need to be funded. State legislation for the reservoir calls for Florida and the feds to each pay about $800 million for the estimated $1.6 billion project.
"Plenty of other parts of the country would like to have that money," Rubio said. "Having the project already authorized will make it easier to get the money, but we'll still have to fight for it."
Water management district engineers say the project will be able to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers by 63 percent and send more than 120 billion gallons of clean water south to the Everglades each year.
Follow Tyler Treadway on Twitter: @tcpalmtreadway