A longtime part of the web of agencies that protects lakes and water resources in Lake County likely will be abolished by the Legislature this year after a contentious 19-year run of challenging traditional water managers.
The Harris Chain of Lakes Restoration Council is the target of two bills — one in the Florida House by state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, and the other in the Senate by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
Matt McClain, legislative aide for the senator, said Sabatini asked for a Senate sponsor during a delegation meeting last year, and Baxley agreed.
“That was pretty much it. There are too many agencies fighting over turf. The idea was, ‘Let’s simplify this,’ McClain said.
Sabatini didn’t respond to an inquiry about why he wanted the agency gone or who asked him to sponsor such a bill.
The restoration council was created in 2001 by the Legislature, and its ability to force other water agencies to pay attention to its concerns came in the wording of the bill.
For years, the interpretation of the law was deemed to mean that the bigger agencies — the St. Johns River Water Management District, the Lake County Water Authority and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — were to provide technical assistance as the council went about its work of trying to find the best way to improve water quality and restore sportfishing on the chain, once considered among the best in the nation for bass fishing.
Often, the Harris council members confronted staffers from the bigger, more politically-charged agencies about their conclusions, so the relationship seldom was smooth.
Lately, however, the agencies had begun withdrawing technical assistance from the Harris council, leaving the advisory group with a budget of about $50,000 a year floundering.
“We could go on for an hour talking about an issue we weren’t prepared for. We had no technical support for the issue, and we’d start going in a direction that really wasn’t productive,” said Keith Truenow, owner of the Lake Jem Farms and chair of the restoration council.
Council member John Stump said working with the St. Johns district in particular became very frustrating.
He said the group wanted to get down to specifics on various issues, so would ask the water district for technical help and “got pushback.”
“They were reluctant to provide technical representation unless we made a formal request, and then we’d have to wait until a month later, and they wouldn’t have the right material, and the questions would go unanswered,” he said.
Finally, the water district told the council it was unable to send its experts to every meeting, said Stump, a geologist who owns an environmental business in Mount Dora.
A St. Johns spokeswoman said the agency did what the Legislature asked it to do for the council, and the district didn’t ask lawmakers to abolish the council.
But here’s a guess on what finally left the water district fed up with working with the Harris council: Members had begun considering whether to recommend water managers use Double Run Swamp, south of Astatula, to move huge amounts of water from dirty Lake Apopka to the Harris chain during events such as hurricanes.
The proposal would likely have required dredging a canal in at least part of the swamp, a proposal typically seen as ecologically heinous and for which is would be nearly impossible to obtain permits.
Stump said the plan drew considerable opposition but was simply something that was considered to avoid washing some of the pollution from Apopka downstream.
Last week, Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks suggested that the county keep the Harris chain council as an advisory board under the county.
“The benefit would be that we would have an advisory board that can help us be of service to both agencies and address technical issues when it comes to protection of our lakes,” he said. “There is a lot of expertise there.”
He suggested the group could examine the issues of aquatic plants and stormwater projects and make suggestions on how to go about putting plans into action.
Commissioners reminded him that the restoration council still exists, but Parks said abolishing it is what folks in these parts call a “done deal.”
He’s right. The bill is headed for passage.
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Lake County Water Authority Executive Director Mike Perry said the most memorable project guided by the council was one a number of years ago to improve sportfishing in which the council secured about $600,000 to restock the chain with fish.
“The only time I ever held a 13-pound bass was when I picked it up from their tank and threw it in the lake,” Perry recalled.
Truenow said he traveled to Tallahassee in the fall to attend a couple committee meetings during which Sabatini’s bill was being discussed, and he argued for keeping the council active, pointing out a number of accomplishments. Nobody was biting.
“The council has been very hard on the St. Johns, and they’ve wanted us to go away for a long time. Maybe they just hit the right time when trying to slim things down,” Truenow said.
“It’s kind of bittersweet. Maybe there’s another avenue that can be opened up.”