Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Friday he's confident the federal government will approve $82 million to study and combat algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River and coastal Lee County, even though an unknown Republican senator blocked the legislation.
"I thought I was going to be able to announce to you today that the algae bill had passed," Nelson said. "(The bill) keeps the research going and tracks the progress of algae blooms, many of which are lethal not only to animals in the water but people as well."
Nelson's original plan was to hold a celebration of sorts along the banks of the Caloosahatchee. After the block vote, and with rain threatening all day, his team moved the meeting to the airport at Page Field.
"I think somebody just wanted to see that all the ducks were in order," Nelson said. "I don't think there is an objection. I think somebody just got a spur under their saddle."
A final vote on the bill is expected to happen next week.
Nelson flew into Fort Myers to talk about President Obama signing the Water Resources and Redevelopment Act, or WRRDA, earlier this week. The bill, after funding is authorized, will send more than $300 million to Southwest Florida for the construction of the Caloosahatchee Reservoir, a 55-billion gallon water storage facility designed to provide freshwater flows during the dry season.
"It's a big deal for Southwest Florida that we have the water bill in place," Nelson told a crowd of about 35.
Nelson praised local elected officials and environmental groups for being persistent about water quality concerns. Heavy rains last summer caused flooding, closed some swimming beaches and sent large nutrient loads to the east and west coasts. Fresh water volumes at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee were strong enough to flush freshwater 15 miles or more off Sanibel Island.
Officials and residents from Sanibel, Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Lee County, the South Florida Water Management District and several environmental groups spoke for about 30 minutes with Nelson.
Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson thanked Nelson for his work in Washington, D.C. and said local politicians support his efforts to fix water quality and quantity problems that have plagued the region for nearly a century.
"The mayors here are behind you 100 percent," Henderson said. "We thank you, and we do feel like it is a bipartisan issue."
When asked his thoughts on fracking in Southwest Florida, Nelson said: "There is only one place in the entire country along the continental shelf that is off limits to oil drilling and that's Florida. I think that should answer your question."
Nelson said he doesn't want drilling activities to threaten places like Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, where drilling activities have been operating for decades.
The group applauded Nelson as he departed.
Jennifer Hecker with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said Nelson's visit and talk were encouraging, and that environmental groups are pleased to have Nelson on their side.
"It's very exciting since we experience so many algal blooms in the Caloosahatchee," Hecker said.