CAPTAINS FOR CLEAN WATER
On average, billions of gallons of nutrient-laden fresh water flow into our lower estuaries via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers every day. The concern to our estuaries is not just that these unnatural discharges contain pesticides, herbicides, fungicide, high nutrient loads and bacteria which have led to public health warnings; the volume of the fresh water alone is enough to disrupt our fragile marine ecosystems. The nutrients, and other pollutants, enter our waters through agricultural and urban areas in the center of the state, mostly north of Lake Okeechobee. Thankfully, with cooperation of farmers throughout the state, we have slowly been able to reduce phosphorous and nitrogen loads that enter the water supply, yet nutrient levels remain much higher than natural lake and and river water.
Under normal circumstances, Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) farmers may not contribute substantial nutrients to this water supply. When we experience heavy rains, however, sugar and other farm lands south of Lake Okeechobee flood. That water is then drained into ditches and ultimately pumped into Lake Okeechobee. This practice is known as back-pumping, and it adds fair amount of fresh water and nutrients to the lake. Back-pumping doesn’t happen on a daily basis, only during periods of heavy rains. The practice is justified in the name of reducing flood risk in largely agricultural areas south of Lake Okeechobee, however it is arguably a violation of the intent of the Clean Water Act and works mostly to the benefit of agricultural corporations operating in the EAA. And it is just one example of the many Lake Okeechobee water mismanagement issues facing our state.
The excess nutrients in Lake Okeechobee discharge water works to fuel toxic algae blooms in our marine (salt and freshwater) environments. The nutrients also have the potential to “fertilize” an already present red tide organism. These recurring fresh water discharges can create two deadly options for marine life in our estuaries: die in the fresh water discharge or be washed out to sea into a supercharged red tide bloom.
The murky, turbid Lake Okeechobee discharge water also kills seagrass, oysters and other life on the sea floor. It blocks light from reaching the seagrass and prohibits photosynthesis. Prolonged exposure to low salinity also kills grass, oysters, and other marine life.
Our seagrass beds and oysters are the foundation of estuarial marine life and an incredible natural filter. Without them, our estuary ecosystems face an uncertain future.
For many years we have witnessed, first hand, a decline in the lower Caloosahatchee, Pine Island Sound, and Indian River Lagoon estuaries due to this long term water mismanagement. While we drown in fresh water, Florida Bay is suffering from a lack of it, causing the water to become too salty to support critical sea life.
Our state needs land in the Everglades Agricultural Area necessary to clean the Lake Okeechobee discharge water in an attempt to restore natural sheet flow to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. This will take large tracts of contiguous land for the construction of storm water treatment areas that will substantially reduce phosphorous and nitrogen levels in the water. Nutrient reduction is critical so we do not simply send our problem south.
We have a long-term solution that is backed by science, yet politicians and certain interested agricultural corporations are busy finger-pointing and spending money pursuing half-measures and unsustainable so-called “solutions”.
Some land must be acquired in the EAA to treat and convey Lake Okeechobee water south to restore the natural flow of lake waters. Amendment 1 (2014), which passed with a 75% majority and is now a part of the Florida Constitution, specifically provides funding for these land purchases. Approximately 1.5 billion dollars in Amendment 1 funds have been spent by the legislature in 2015 and 2016 without any significant land acquisitions – or even specific land acquisition plans – south of Lake Okeechobee.
The reoccurring state of emergency in South Florida is a painful reminder of the government’s lack of concern for our local ecosystems and economy. Fishing guides are often the first to feel the impact of Lake Okeechobee discharges, but we guides are not the only ones feeling the economic impacts of muddy, nutrient-rich discharge waters flooding our beaches and coastal estuaries. While fishing is a $5 to 8 billion industry in our state, Florida also relies upon a $67 billion tourism industry as the engine of a robust economy.
We have the opportunity to fix this recurring problem utilizing funds readily available through Amendment 1, but time is of the essence. We must take action now on the only viable long-term solution available – restoring the natural flow by purchasing land to treat and convey Lake Okeechobee water south.
We who depend on the water for our income are losing faith as we watch our estuaries die before our eyes. The only way we will be able to sleep at night is to know that we are acting to implement a real, long-term solution.
We have a problem that is destroying our local natural resources and damaging our economy. We have a solution. What is holding us back?
Captains for Clean Water