Water is Florida’s most valuable resource. We enjoy living in Florida for the beautiful beaches, diverse estuaries and incredible fishing opportunities.
It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at the water coming out of the Caloosahatchee to realize that we have a problem, but a fixable problem. The high-volume Lake Okeechobee discharges have wreaked havoc on our fishing, tourism and real estate industries for decades.
Florida’s water problems are man made. Historically, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers were not connected to Lake Okeechobee. When the Everglades were first drained, over a century ago, it seemed like a good idea. It provided more usable land for agriculture and development.
Today, we are suffering the consequences of those mistakes. The economy and quality of life of millions of Floridians living in South Florida is at risk due to declining water quality from Lake Okeechobee discharges. Meanwhile at the southern tip of the Everglades, Florida Bay is dying due to lack of freshwater flow.
Last year in Tallahassee, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 10 which authorized and funded a reservoir and filter marshes south of Lake Okeechobee to store and treat water from the lake so it can be sent south to the Everglades. The reservoir is being added to the Central Everglades Plan, a series of projects that remove ditches and dams in the Everglades that prevent water from flowing through the Everglades into Florida Bay.
After the heavy rainfall in May, we witnessed how our water management system fails to meet the needs of our residents. Billions of gallons of water per day were drained from the sugarcane fields south of Lake Okeechobee, flooding the Everglades and prohibiting any water from Lake Okeechobee to be sent south.
The flood gates at Lake Okeechobee opened, sending billions of gallons of nutrient and sediment laden freshwater into the Caloosahatchee and toxic algae into the St. Lucie River.
The sugarcane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area were historically Everglades wetlands that would have stored, filtered and slowly flowed the excess lake water south. Even after very heavy rainfall, the Everglades Agricultural Area drained quickly- at the expense of the Everglades and our estuaries.
There is no shared adversity. The system was designed to function this way to the detriment of Florida’s marine, fishing real estate and tourism industries.
Investing in Everglades restoration will significantly reduce the Lake Okeechobee discharges, and provide clean freshwater for Florida Bay. The EAA Reservoir is currently pending federal authorization.
Other important restoration projects such as the Central Everglades Project and the remainder of Tamiami Trail bridging currently await federal funding. It is imperative that we voice our concerns to water managers and work together to show members of Congress from across the country how important these investments are to our communities.
Daniel Andrews is executive director of Captains for Clean Water.