Save Our Water
Organized by: Dave Preston
March 08, 2016
If you live in Florida and are paying attention, you have probably heard something about the ongoing Lake Okeechobee fresh water releases and the unprecedented environmental damage they have been causing. Since the El Nino-driven heavy rainfall began in January, our saltwater estuaries on both coasts have been completely inundated by fresh water runnoff being discharged out of Lake Okeechobee at a rate of 6-10 BILLION gallons a day. Now if this was just a slug of oridinary fresh water we would still have a major problem on our hands. But the discharge is far from clean and the situation is dire.
This 'water' is actually something closer to a chemical soup. It's loaded with nitrogen, phosphorus, and other highly toxic pollutants generated by the farm lands around the lake. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently dumping this water east and west through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers at an unprecedented pace because they have nowhere else to put it. The releases are wreaking havoc on our sensitive coastal estuaries - a black stain that is killing off oyster beds, sea grass, fish, dolphins, manatees, and turtles, not to mention the unseen damage that is being done at the bottom of the food chain, on a microscopic level.
St. Lucie and Martin Counties have declared a state of emergency, telling its citizens and visitors to stay out of the water for fear of potentially fatal bacterial infections. Local businesses that depend on the waters - fishing guides, tour operators, paddleboard and boat rentals, restaurants, and hotels are losing untold millions of dollars in revenue during what is supposed to be peak tourist season. If these things sound pretty terrible, they are - we are essentially dealing with environmental armageddon right now – our own Deepwater Horizon, just strangely without the mass media blitz.
So why is this happening? To over-simplify a very complex problem, there is currently nowhere else to send the water. Instead of being flushed east and west through man-made canals, the water should flow SOUTH into the Everglades. The Everglades has been dying a slow painful death since the mid-1900’s, when it's source of clean, fresh water was cut off by the creation of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), an area of corporately owned farmland and rural agricultural communities built along the south rim of Lake Okeechobee. Pre-industrialization, when it rained and the lake water level would rise, the south bank of the lake would overflow and a very thin sheet of fresh water just a few inches deep would slowly disperse through the sawgrass and work its way south, eventually ending up in Florida Bay.
This clean fresh water was the lifeblood of the Everglades and the bay. As the water filtered south, it would also seep into the ground and replenish our aquifers. But sadly, as development exploded as our population grew exponentially, in order to protect the EAA and its farm lands from flooding, the Army Corps built the Hoover Dike to completely surround the lake – a 35 foot high impenetrable wall of concrete that halted the flow south, very effectively choking off the Everglades.
One of the most unique and diverse ecosystems on the planet has been dying ever since.
Having lost the ability to send water south, we now have nowhere to send it but east and west - in massive volumes after heavy rains - to do untold damage to the sensitive coastal estuaries of the Indian River Lagoon, Sanibel and Captiva Islands, Estero Bay, and Pine Island Sound. All of which are getting completely hammered right now by a toxic plume capable of causing red tide, bacterial infections, and massive ecosystem losses.
What is the solution? It's not an easy one. The concensus of our most respected scientists and biologists is that the only way to begin to solve this problem is for the state to purchase several large parcels of farm land south of the lake, land owned by the sugar corporations. This land would be used to create a temporary storage and filtration system for our excess stormwater, which once clean would eventually be sent south into the Everglades and our aquifers. Until there is a system in place that can clean the water coming out of Lake O and convey it south, we are pretty much stuck with history repeating itself.
Why is nothing changing? This is not a new problem. We found ourselves in the same situation as recently as 2013, another El Nino year. But until we figure out a way to send water south, we are stuck in this cyle of destruction. Fortunately, the desire of the people to find a solution is undeniable. In 2014, 75% of Florida’s voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1, which designated 33% of all real estate taxes collected in the state be allocated to the acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands. It appeared that things were moving in the right direction. The very next year, in late 2015, the state was scheduled to close on a binding contract to purchase 46,800 acres of land owned by U.S. Sugar Corp, which would have cost around $350m, or $7,500/acre, a good deal for us that was negotiated during the recession. The land is in an ideal location for the creation of the storage and cleaning system we so desperately need. The state collected $648m in Amendment 1 money in 2015 ALONE.
Everything was lined up perfectly. We had the money, we had the land under contract, and we had the full support of the citizens of Florida to finally make the first huge step in solving multiple major problems that have been plaguing us for over half a century. So what happened? Well this is Florida, so our state legislature and the SFL Water Management District...let the contract expire. WHAT??? Yes. Apparently, U.S. Sugar Corp changed their mind at the last minute and decided they no longer wanted to sell us the land. We were out of the recession and they felt it was worth more than they were contractually obligated to sell it to us for. So they spent upwards of $20 million on lobbyists and campaign contributions over the course of 2015, and convinced our elected officials to take the stance that their land was no longer needed. Devistating.
So we have taken a major step back, but all is not lost. We do have the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which is pretty much what the name implies. It is a plan that, if executed, would attempt to re-create the historic flows of water south through the Everglades through a system of reservoirs, canals, pumps, and levees. It is an ambitious plan, with an estimated cost of $10.5 billion and 35+ year time line to complete 68 individual projects, which would make it the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. Unfortunately, although congressed passed CERP into law in 2000 – 16 years ago – the project has progressed at a snail’s pace. To date, just one of the 68 projects that make up CERP has been completed. And while our politicians spin, argue, delay, and misdirect, all the while continuing to take money from big sugar, three of the state’s most unique and sensitive ecosystems are paying a great price.
And what is my role in all of this? Basically I am just one seriously pissed off citizen. I was born in a hospital in Miami overlooking Biscayne Bay. I grew up fishing and boating with my dad all over South Florida, the Keys, and Bahamas. I’ve explored just about every inch of the Everglades that I could get to over the past 30 years, and it's my favorite place on the planet. But the changes to our coastal ecology that I have seen just over the past decade have been nothing short of heartbreaking. And now as a 37 year old, somewhat responsible tax paying citizen of the great state of Florida and United States of America, I feel like I deserve better than this. Actually I KNOW that we ALL deserve better than this. When 75% of a voting population clearly instructs its government to buy something with its money, that government damn well needs to listen. And in this case, not only have our elected leaders chosen not to listen, but they have made a concious decision to systematically and maliciously oppose the will of the people. We are seeing a staggering display of corruption and abuse of power, and it's long past time for it to come to an end.
So what can we do? Well, knowledge is power. You are now armed with the facts, and you can help educate those around you. Given the scope of this man-made natural disaster, it continues to receive shockingly little press, and there are still some people that have no idea that there is any issue with our water whatsoever. There is an absolutely crucial election coming up in November. Whether you identify with the Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or are just so fed up with the system that you haven’t voted in 10 years, if you truly care about this issue, the ONLY way we can start towards a solution to this problem is to put leaders into power who care enough about our waters to make a stand, and most importantly cannot be corrupted by big business. Over the coming months, along with the help of some very good friends / friends of the cause, I am going to be compiling a simple fact sheet of each of the key politicians positions on the issues that have been outlined above. I am not trying to tell anyone who to vote for, only to educate. What I can say with great certainty, is that something needs to change. If we elect the same brand of politicians that are currently in power, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Well, thanks for reading this far. I did not intend for this statement to be nearly this long, but hope you found it to be informative, and perhaps disturbing. If you choose to donate a few dollars to the Crowdrise account, that would not go unappreciated. 100% of any monies raised will go toward the printing of materials (stickers, flyers, car magnets, etc.) designed to promote education on these issues. If you would like to contact me directly to better understand how your dollars would be spent, I am happy to get on the phone with you. Just get in touch with me via private message to coordinate a call. I’ll kick off the account with a $250 donation.