Florida’s water crisis 2018: Lessons learned from a year of bad water

December 26, 2018

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), passed in 2000, included a series of 68 projects that were supposed to be completed within thirty years. Most of the significant features to reduce discharges from Lake Okeechobee and rehydrate the Everglades were to be completed within the first twenty years. Instead, a lack of funding and political will have caused CERP projects to stagnate for decades.

This problem could have been fixed by now if the politicians and bureaucrats in Tallahassee and Washington cared as much about the Everglades as we all do. Unfortunately, special interest groups have spent millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to keep the status quo water management system in place.

When CERP was originally drafted, no one envisioned Florida’s water conditions would deteriorate as rapidly as they have. Now, toxic algae and polluted waters are crippling our economy. Our policymakers need to be looking for ways to accelerate Everglades restoration by adding more wetlands south of Lake Okeechobee, and increasing conveyance capacity so that more water can flow south to Florida Bay.

Since Captains for Clean Water was founded in 2016, the tides are changing in the fight to save our waters. Water quality was a key issue in the 2018 election. Politicians were forced to talk about plans for cleaner water and were met with crowds demanding action at nearly every campaign stop. More legislative progress has been made in the last three years than in the previous sixteen years. We’re on track to fix the problems, but we have a long way to go.

As we close out a tumultuous year for Floridians, we’ve taken time to reflect on what lessons can be learned from the devastating water crisis. Here are four important messages that we need to remember as we face the new year.

1) The best way to get involved is to stay informed and spread the word.

The successes we’ve had in getting legislation passed and keeping water quality a critical topic in Florida are made possible by you. As one voice, an individual alone can be ignored. As thousands of voices with a unified message, we are impossible to ignore.

The most effective way you can help speed up Everglades restoration is to talk to your friends and family about what’s happening. Spend a few minutes each week getting up-to-date on the issues. Have informed conversations that help educate others. The more people who are informed, the louder our voice becomes.

2) Nature is resilient if given the opportunity.

Since Lake Okeechobee discharges were reduced in the fall, the quality of our coastal waterways has greatly improved. The polluted, dark-colored water is no longer surging to tide at billions of gallons per day, giving much-needed relief to our damaged estuaries. We are seeing positive fishing reports, even better than they’ve been in months and, thankfully, the toxic green sludge appears to be gone for now.

We must provide lasting opportunities for our estuaries to recover by expediting Everglades restoration projects and by managing water for the benefit of the entire system instead of just the sugarcane fields south of Lake Okeechobee.

3) We must support local businesses.

The economic impacts to Florida this year were astounding, with many businesses reporting significant losses due to poor water quality. Tourism, fishing, hospitality, recreation—the water crisis devastated the largest economic drivers in the state, putting many people out of work and business owners without answers. The downturn in visitors especially impacted the wages of those employed along the coast. Local food banks offered support for the hurting communities, sending weekly mobile food pantries to Fort Myers Beach to help feed citizens.

Despite the undesirable publicity, many business owners recognized that keeping quiet won’t fix the root cause of our water problems and that we must confront the people in elected positions who have the power to enact change. This led many business leaders to stand with Captains for Clean Water, traveling to Washington D.C. and Tallahassee to express their concerns and urge elected officials to enforce solutions.

Richard Johnson and his wife Mead (a Sanibel Island native) are the owners of Bailey’s General Store, one of the oldest businesses on Sanibel and the second-oldest in Lee County. They are joined by their adult children in the ownership and operation of several Sanibel-based businesses employing over 125 full-time staff.

Johnson is an active advocate for fixing our water issues stating, “My family has been in business here for well over a century. Along with our beautiful beaches, water quality is our greatest asset and has now become the greatest threat to being able to sustain our 119-year-old business. That’s why we’ve gotten involved with the fight for clean water. Our economy and way of life depend on solution-driven water management and we’re committed to seeing it through to the finish line.”

We must support the businesses in our communities when they are suffering as they have this year. As we enjoy the holiday season with our families and friends, try to make a concerted effort to patronize local shops, restaurants, and attractions, and leave a generous tip.

4) We deserve better water management.

We always have too much, or not enough, rainfall in Florida. Water managers have long mishandled the system, burdening our estuaries, Florida’s residents, visitors, and coastal businesses.

During the winter, Lake Okeechobee is artificially kept at a high water level so that there is plenty of water to irrigate the sugarcane crops in case of drought. This is a problem because it leaves very little storage capacity once the summer rains begin. The Caloosahatchee needs water during the winter to help balance salinities in the upper estuary, but water managers choose to retain this water in the lake, which results in more discharges in the summer.

There is no mutual benefit in the way Florida’s water is currently managed. The Everglades Agricultural Area is designed to provide flood control and balanced water supply all year, and yet, current management is creating obstacles to the construction of the reservoir. Captains for Clean Water will be fighting to stop this in 2019!

While we remain confident in the legislative progress that was made this year, we must remain vigilant even as the water quality continues to improve, visitors return to our beaches, and the media shifts their focus to other issues.

The fact is: Florida’s water management system is broken and, unless we fix the root of the problem, we will continue to face water crises whenever the rain comes and the waters rise. But, it can be fixed. And we won’t stop until it is.