by Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Monday he will file legislation aimed at forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to divert more freshwater into Northwest Florida’s Apalachicola Bay system.
Nelson, who visited Florida A&M University and the state Capitol, said he and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will support Senate legislation similar to an effort in the U.S. House led by Congressman Neal Dunn, who represents the Apalachicola Bay area. Dunn has said he will file a resolution under the Congressional Review Act to permanently block a Corps’ rule that regulates water releases in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.
Dunn, who will announce details of his legislation Tuesday in Apalachicola, has said he wants to block the Corps rule and allow Florida and Georgia officials to come “to an equitable agreement” on water use in the region.
The action by the U.S. senators and Dunn follows a decision by a U.S. Supreme Court-appointed special master who recommended last week that Florida should be denied relief in a lawsuit that alleges Georgia is taking too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system and is damaging Apalachicola Bay. The special master said a settlement could not be reached without the Corps’ involvement.
Nelson said Florida lawmakers have tried to work with the Corps on an administrative resolution of the so-called “water war” with no success. With the recent setback in the court, Nelson said lawmakers will again try to resolve the issue legislatively, although that too has failed in the past.
“They’re starving us down river,” Nelson said. “We’ll see what we can do with this legislation.”
Also during his visit Monday, Nelson, who is the only Florida Democrat holding a statewide office, said he has not made a decision about the upcoming confirmation vote on Judge Neil Gorsuch, whom President Donald Trump has nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In voting against a half-dozen Trump nominees to the Cabinet and other positions, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Nelson said he has had “very specific” reasons for opposing the nominations. In the case of Sessions, who was a fellow U.S. senator, Nelson said he had doubts that Sessions will vigorously enforce civil rights laws, “particularly voting rights.”
Nelson, who is facing re-election next year and could be challenged by Gov. Rick Scott, said he opposed former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, as the new head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services because of Price’s past support for privatizing Medicare and his support for converting the Medicaid program to “block grants.”
“Florida is going to be in a world of hurt if they start block granting Medicaid,” Nelson said. “If you do that, first of all, the people of Florida who are poor that need health care, and can’t afford to buy health insurance, they’re not going to get the health care because there’s not going to be enough money to go around.”
Earlier in the day, Nelson spent time with students and professors involved in Florida A&M’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programs, highlighting the future of NASA and the American space efforts.
Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a $19.5 billion, one-year spending plan for NASA, which Nelson played a role in as the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, which oversees the federal space agency.
Among other provisions, the legislation specifically outlines the goal of sending space missions to Mars, said Nelson, who spent six days on the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.
Florida A&M is directly involved in the Orion project, with Lockheed Martin announcing late last year a $5 million agreement with FAMU engineering students and faculty to work on NASA’s Orion “multi-purpose crew vehicle” program and other projects.
J. Murray Gibson, dean of the FAMU-Florida State University College of Engineering, said the first group of student interns is expected to work with Lockheed Martin this summer at the Kennedy Space Center.
Nelson said he expects the House to take up the NASA bill and pass it, although he said the future of the space program remains uncertain with the new president.
“Let’s hope that the new administration indeed keeps us going on the course that we’re going because that way we’re going to Mars,” Nelson said.