Why can’t you just send water south—what’s slowing the flow of the Everglades? And how are we fixing it?
There’s no question that sending more water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades is good for all of south Florida. The more water sent south to rehydrate the critically parched River of Grass means less chance for high-volume, damaging discharges to the coasts.
This reduces ecological impacts and protects the lifeblood of the state’s $39-billion tourism-based economy: clean water. So, if it’s such a no-brainer, why don’t we just do it? What’s the hold up?
Well, after a century of environmental re-construction, political corruption, and operational favoritism, there are barriers to getting the water where it needs to go, where it once flowed naturally. There are obstructions, both physical and systematic, that make sending more water south harder than it should be.
Fortunately, those barriers are being dismantled. There has been a great deal of progress in recent years, but there’s still a long road ahead. Let’s take a look at some of the roadblocks that have been slowing the flow—and some of the “roadwork” that’s underway to restore it.
The most obvious restriction to flows south is a result of the physical re-configuration of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades over the past 100 years. In order to settle the land south of the lake in the early 20th century, Okeechobee was dammed, ditched and diked, cutting off the natural overflow south and redirecting it to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers through manmade canals.
Now there are communities and thousands of acres of agricultural land (predominantly sugar cane) where water once spilled over Lake Okeechobee’s southern banks and began its journey south through the Everglades and into Florida Bay.
So, today’s altered landscape prevents water from simply overflowing like it did naturally. We now have to physically maneuver water south using manmade infrastructure like canals, pumps and water holding areas.
Unfortunately, mimicking Mother Nature’s flow of water in south Florida under today’s manipulated geography is incredibly complicated and requires monumental engineering efforts. Current infrastructure to bypass those modern hurdles is limited—resulting in restricted flows to the Everglades that measure only about a third of historic flows—but there is a plan underway to bolster those capacities.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is a coalescence of 68 infrastructure projects designed to restore south Florida’s vital ecosystem by storing, cleaning, and sending more water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
The plan, which represents the largest ecosystem restoration project of its kind in the world, has been ongoing since 2000 and is still decades from completion. However, there have been some serious milestones made in recent years, and progress on critical projects is happening faster than ever.
In the past 4 years, the effort has completed, broken ground, or reached major milestones on 55 projects. In particular, upgraded infrastructure in the central Everglades is uncorking bottlenecks and lifting roadblocks (sometimes literally) to send more water south.
Progress on the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which is the geographic middle portion of CERP, has facilitated the capacity to move more water from Lake Okeechobee through the central Everglades and past US-41 (Tamiami Trail), a road cutting through the Everglades that has been a hold-up in the past.
Expanded bridge structures on US-41, the removal of the Old Tamiami Trail roadbed, new pump systems, and a new seepage wall in the 8.5 Square Mile Area are ensuring more water makes its way into Everglades National Park and down to Florida Bay without over-flooding the central Everglades or surrounding communities.
But, there’s still a lot of work left to get the system up to speed physically, and bottlenecks in the system remain.
Completion of cornerstone projects, like the EAA Reservoir, is critical to creating the water-conveyance capacities required of a healthy Everglades—and to take a big bite out of damaging coastal discharges.
The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir is often referred to as the crown jewel of Everglades restoration because it will significantly reduce harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers by storing and cleaning excess water from the lake before sending it south to the Everglades.
The reservoir, expected to be completed by 2030, will cover 10,500 acres and hold water to a depth of 20 feet for a total capacity of 240,000 acre-feet.
It will also have a robust water-cleansing component made up of a 6,500-acre Stormwater Treatment Area (STA). STAs are man-made filter marshes that use natural aquatic vegetation to filter out pollutants, like excess nitrogen and phosphorus.
Those excess nutrients can seriously disrupt the balance of growth in the Everglades, so water quality alone can sometimes be a chokepoint, with high pollution levels limiting flows into Everglades National Park due to federal quality requirements.
That’s why improving and maximizing our treatment capabilities is also extremely important to minimizing bottlenecks that prevent us from sending critical water south.
Restoration hinges on continued funding
However, as the largest ecosystem restoration project of its kind in the world, Everglades restoration doesn’t come cheap. Maintaining progress on all of these multi-year, physical infrastructure improvements depends on continued annual funding from both the state and federal governments.
When it’s all said and done, the plan is projected to be completed in 2050 and cost about $23 billion in FY2020 dollars, but when you consider that Everglades restoration is a 4:1 return on investment for Florida’s economy, the investment just makes sense.
Given the long-term nature of the effort, ensuring adequate funding every year at the state and federal level is vital to keeping the plan on track.
Any delays in funding equate to delays in construction, and ultimately, delays in restoring south-Florida’s waters. That cannot happen.
Lake operations plans can also limit flows south. Lake Okeechobee operations are essentially the way in which water is distributed throughout the now-connected Lake Okeechobee system. It’s when, how much, and where the water is released: east coast, west coast, south to the Everglades, or to water supply.
Historically, lake operations plans have heavily favored industrial water-supply interests to the detriment of all other stakeholders, depriving the Everglades of the water it needs during the dry season and creating unnecessarily high lake levels heading into the rainy season.
Those inflated lake levels in turn often lead to high-volume discharges that send nutrient-rich lake water carrying toxic blue-green algae to the east and west coasts.
The current Lake O operations plan (LORS 08) has cursed our estuaries since 2008, but thankfully, there is a much-improved plan that will be taking over very soon.
The new plan, known as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), is the result of a 3-year collaborative process by the Army Corps of Engineers to rewrite the playbook for how water is managed in Lake Okeechobee.
LOSOM loosened the grip of the status-quo stranglehold on lake operations. The plan is estimated to reduce harmful discharges to both coasts by about 37% and significantly increase the amount of water moving south to the Everglades.
LOSOM won’t be a silver bullet solution for Everglades restoration, but it is a major step in the right direction and will help manage the lake better.
Initially expected to have been implemented by early 2023, the process has since been delayed several times and now isn’t projected to kick in officially until around January of 2024. It’s critical that LOSOM is implemented ASAP to begin seeing benefits and moving more water south.
The last barrier to sending water south is also the most slippery. It happens behind closed doors, it doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t have a completion date, and it most certainly doesn’t want to change. It’s the political status quo that has positioned the industrial sugar industry as puppet master of south Florida’s water management, ever clamoring for control of every drop without regard for the needs of other stakeholders.
And although the forces behind the status quo don’t want things to change, change IS happening—those control strings are getting snipped one by one.
In the past seven years, we’ve seen Florida’s water win more political battles than ever before, from the ousting of corruption on the former South Florida Water Management District governing board in 2018, to authorization of the EAA Reservoir, to the equitable result of LOSOM, to the historic veto of Senate Bill 2508.
The takedown of bad bill SB 2508 in 2022 marked a defined shift in the fight for clean water, a true turning of the tide. The fight of all fights, SB 2508 was a blindsiding, political ploy by special interests to keep control of Florida’s water, threatening the progress we had made on Everglades restoration up to that point.
When the bill was filed during the 2022 Florida State Legislative Session, it had red flags all over it. Governor DeSantis even denounced the bill early on, saying, “SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark.”
Thankfully, our community rallied, showing up like never before to fight the bad bill.
Over the course of 55 days, we logged two trips to Tallahassee (one day of testimony, one rally at the Capitol), 43,730 petition signatures, 155,746 emails to legislators, and 1,448 calls to legislators.
Due to those efforts, the bill was amended twice during legislative session before finally receiving a historic veto from the Governor. It was a landmark moment for clean water and sent a clear message about the importance of water quality.
A future without barriers
With culture-shifting decisions like the veto of SB 2508 and groundbreaking progress on Everglades restoration projects, there’s a renewed focus and sense of unity at a level we’ve never seen before in this decades-long effort. From advocacy organizations to state agencies to federal entities, the goal is clear: dismantle the barriers, send more water south, and restore our Everglades.
And because more and more people like you are getting involved, we’ll continue seeing progress at a record pace. Policymakers are forced to make things happen when tens of thousands of like-minded, passionate clean-water warriors get vocal about the future of our treasured waters.
Now, the fight is far from over—there is still A LOT of work left to do and there is still plenty of opposition to progress. Some of the most impactful improvements still won’t be complete for years to come, so it’s likely that we’ll have to endure more times of imperiled waters before we start to experience full-scale relief.
But with your help, we are rewriting what the future will look like for America’s Everglades. It might not happen overnight, but we will leave this national treasure better than we found it—for our generation and generations to come.