I never thought I would start a nonprofit. I was perfectly content as a fishing guide – or at least I thought I was. Just six months ago, when Captains for Clean Water was founded, I had no idea where it would go or how fast it could grow. What I did know is that something was taken from me. Something very dear to me, something that shaped me into the man I am today. The estuaries of South Florida have suffered tremendously due to deliberate water mismanagement in the Greater Everglades. I couldn’t stand to see this go on any longer, and I saw an opportunity to make a difference. Every day I am humbled by the opportunities that are presented to us, and thankful for the incredible support we have gathered in such a short time.
I’ve seen vast expanses of seagrass meadows wither away to barren mud flats in Florida Bay. I’ve seen the labyrinth of oyster bars that once spanned the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River die as a result of high volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee. I fished the St. Lucie River as a kid, only to return and find an estuary covered in green slime. I’m only 25 years old, a blink of an eye for Mother Nature, but what I’ve witnessed in my life is nothing short of heartbreaking.
We caused this destruction, and we have the power to stop it. The problem was identified before I was even born. In 1987 Florida Bay experienced a massive and widespread loss of seagrass – which was then followed by a decade of algae blooms as a result of the seagrass die-off. In 2000, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). It wasn’t perfect, but it was an important start to fixing these problems. Today, only one out of 68 CERP projects has been completed. Sadly, the lone completed project provides very little, if any, benefit to the estuaries. Even as critical elements of CERP have stagnated, we have learned that CERP alone will not solve the problem – it is necessary, but not sufficient. It will take more to save our estuaries, but our policymakers continue to ignore science-based solutions.
As a result of the diking, draining, and rerouting of water in the Greater Everglades, we have severely altered flows throughout the entire system – a system that functioned flawlessly for tens of thousands of years prior to our intermeddling. Today, the Everglades and Florida Bay receive less than twenty percent of the water they once did. This excess water is diverted by way of manmade canals to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. Everyone involved knows the problem: any time freshwater flows are substantially altered to an estuary, the habitat suffers. Seagrass and oysters die, and we experience algae blooms and fish kills.
What disturbs me the most is the difference between what science is telling us and what our policymakers are doing – or not doing. We need our policymakers to match our passion and perseverance to solve this fixable problem. Everglades restoration is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. Big projects come with big obstacles. We need policymakers who figure out ways to overcome hurdles, not ones who search for excuses to maintain the status quo. In the words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who was perhaps the greatest friend of the Everglades “All we need, really, is a change from a near frigid to a tropical attitude of mind.”
The solution to this problem is fundamentally simple. We need increased storage, treatment, and conveyance of water from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. We need to prioritize projects that will give us the most relief in all of the affected estuaries. Most importantly, we need to speed things up. Our estuaries can’t wait. It’s Now or Neverglades.