A Snapshot of History
Before 1900, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades were one system that occupied the central and southern region of the Florida peninsula. Essentially the Everglades extended to within one mile of the Atlantic beaches. A rain drop that might fall near present-day Orlando would flow south to Lake Okeechobee, then on to the Everglades via the River of Grass, and eventually it would end up in the Gulf of Mexico. Development after 1900 entailed draining vast stretches of swampland with canals, which lowered the water table and diverted the natural southward flow of freshwater. Through dredging, the majority of water was steered away from the Everglades and into canals that expressed water west to Fort Myers, northeast to Stuart, and east and southeast to what is now West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Constructing causeway-like roads across the Everglades further blocked the natural River of Grass from flowing southward. The result was that Everglades plant and animal life dramatically declined. In some sections today there are pockets of desert with no life. In response concerned environmentalists devised a detailed plan to save this unique ecosystem. In 1998, the Federal Government and the State of Florida formed a partnership and pledged billions of dollars over a 25 year period to undo all of the man-made damage. The effort was to include restoring the Everglades River of Grass in Shark River Valley and getting Florida's waterways to meet the standards within the Federal Clean Water Act. But since then the State of Florida has repeatedly delayed and reneged on its commitments. Adverse lobbying pressure from Florida's agricultural and development sectors has been one reason for the inaction.
The Center of the Debate and Possible Solutions
Restoring Lake Okeechobee's historic southern flow into the Everglades River of Grass will only work if agribusinesses' polluted run-off (within the lake) is severely curtailed and ameliorated. Otherwise, opening a southern exit for contaminated water will only serve to finish off the ailing Everglades. Getting rid of the agriculture lands at the southern end of Lake Okeechobee has been a science-supported path. This would go a long way towards restoring the historic River of Grass. Phasing out cattle ranching within a restored and once-again meandering Kissimmee River basin north of the Lake has been another accepted strategy. Another workable concept has been to create filter ponds to settle out phosphorus, nitrogen, and other damaging pollutants. To that end, filter marshes have been installed in numerous locations including the area between Wellington (in Palm Beach County) and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Constructed to sound and scientifically proven standards, they have been successful in reducing pollution flowing into this northern and isolated piece of the Everglades. So a hybrid path of curtailing some agriculture, an introduced southern flow-way, and installing perimeter filter marshes has always remained on the table as a viable solution.
Agreeing to reduce agriculture combined with constructing perimeter filter marshes - is why the State of Florida negotiated an option to buy a part of U.S. Sugar's farm holdings at the southern end of Lake Okeechobee several years ago. That land purchase option is set to expire in October 2016. What Floridians considered a sealed deal was upended when U.S. Sugar decided it no longer wanted to sell the land in question. The corporation heavily lobbied the State Legislature not buy it and asked that they simply allow the deal to expire. U.S. Sugar contends that the purchase will do little to solve the pollution problem.
On the other hand, many Lee County, Treasure Coast, and Palm Beach County residents insist that the deal must go through in order to comprehensively address the recurring blue-green algae problem. The purchase will allow for a significant southern exit for excess lake water so that Fort Myers and the Treasure Coast will obtain needed relief. The planned adjacent filter marshes would serve to cleanse dirty water before entering the Everglades and allow it to replenish the historic River of Grass.
Further holding up the exercising of this land purchase option is the governing board of SFWMD. The agency's board is dominated by faithful appointees of Governor Scott and his agricultural allies. Governor Scott has already firmly stated his intention to let the southern Lake Okeechobee land purchase option expire in October 2016.
Florida (through the Governor and the State Legislature) has kicked the can down the road and continues to ignore the will of its citizens. In 2014, 74 percent of participating voters chose to raise state funds for environmentally-based land purchases and water conservation. It was the intention of voters to earmark a projected $720 million in dock stamps for saving the state's precarious environment. But the State of Florida has regularly failed to use the designated money appropriately and has even misspent the funds on unrelated needs. Florida's Governor Scott has asked the Federal government to not enforce environmental clean water standards, reasoning that the regulations are not business friendly. After much delay by the State of Florida, an impatient Federal government has discussed implementing a deadline for real strategies to reduce pollution from agribusiness run-off, septic tank seepage, and storm water run-off.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In the meantime Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County residents are enduring the second blue-green algae outbreak in three years. Locals complain of itchy eyes, scratchy throats, gagging smells, and possibly unforeseen health impacts later in life, while witnessing a die-off of the natural environment around them. For the first time area beaches are impacted and tourist dollars hang in the balance. Martin County has been forced to close several beaches where blue-green algae is washing ashore. Area hotels are bracing for a possible dip in summer visitors who wish to avoid inconvenience during their vacations. Martin County has hosted visits from a variety of elected officials from both Tallahassee and Washington all attempting to better understand the complexity of the problem. Will this latest crisis be enough to motivate the State of Florida to act appropriately? What must we do to help push a workable solution along?
See below for fIve key recommendations to end the pollution impacting the Treasure Coast
Essay by C. Flick
Nature - Page 7 of 8
The Problem and Players - A Cliff Notes Version
1) The U.S. Corp of Engineers controls the water flow from Lake Okeechobee through a series of dams and locks. The Corp's mission is to predict and balance the lake's water level between wet and dry seasons, so that the earthen Herbert Hoover Dike built around the lake in the 1930s does not burst and flood nearby communities. When Florida's normal dry season experiences more rain than expected, managers attempt to lower Lake Okeechobee's water level before storms adds too much more. Not lowering the lake level is not a viable long-term option as it could lead to a break in the dike. To add to the woes, the poorly constructed dike already leaks in many places. Consequently, the Corp has been undertaking an expensive dike rebuilding effort over the last decade. Since the reconstruction started, some rebuilt sections continue to leak and will require more work.
2) The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is the State agency that controls the major canals throughout central and southern Florida. It also must predict and allocate freshwater between three primary recipients: agriculture, cities, and nature. About 20-30 years ago, nature was virtually left out of the equation. The resulting collapse in the population of Everglades nesting birds finally pushed this problem to the forefront and spurred corrective action. SFWMD's subsequent work to help restore the Everglades has given the environmental component its rightful place within their complicated water balancing and allocation calculations.
3) Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County's blue-green algae blooms are the result of human pollution. Certainly blue-green algae occurs naturally all the time in our rivers and bays. But its numbers explode when people introduce nutrient rich freshwater into what is a brackish (part fresh/part salty) estuarine system. An outbreak or overpopulation of blue-green algae essentially robs waterways of necessary oxygen, thus killing most water borne life.
4) An on-going debate rages as to the primary source of this human-caused pollution. All sides agree that the pollution within Lake Okeechobee is one source of the algae bloom, but it's not the only source.
5) Scientists tell us that the pollution is coming from a variety of sources: 1) For agribusiness - it's fertilizer for growing the region's crops and the run-off of cattle feces that flows south into Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee River basin; and 2) from urban development - it's the proliferation of seeping septic tanks, inadequately designed sewage systems, and unfiltered storm water run-off that are all emptying directly into our east coast estuaries. Each of these sources of contamination must be abated.
6) Identifying the pollution source that is most to blame is still hotly debated. In the meantime, not enough is happening to address the root problems.
or Measures that Don't Solve the Problem
1) Slowing polluted freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee is only a short term measure to the recurring blue-green algae bloom dilemma. Simply postponing the rate of dirty discharges does not solve the problem.
2) Strengthening Lake Okeechobee's weakened earthen dike system (thus allowing the lake to hold more tainted water) has never been considered a serious solution to persistent pollution and recurring algae blooms.
A Citizen's Checklist: What We Want
These are not the only measures that must be done. But they constitute a science-based process towards breaking the unnatural cycle of blue-green algae blooms during Florida's annual rainy season.
1) The State of Florida must exercise its legal option and buy the U.S. Sugar land on the south side of Lake Okeechobee. It must do this by October 2016.
2) Build the recommended southern flow-way (on the south side of Lake Okeechobee) to restore the historic River of Grass to the Everglades. This will relieve the pressure to release dirty freshwater west into the Caloosahatchee River and northeast into the St. Lucie Canal and on to the brackish Indian River Lagoon.
3) Install filter marshes in the southern Everglades Agricultural Region located south of Lake Okeechobee. This is needed to cleanse polluted water prior to its reaching the Everglades.
4) For both the Treasure Coast and southwest Florida, use the state's dock stamp money (earmarked by the voters in 2014) to clean-up inadequate septic, sewer and drainage systems. This involves extending water and sewer lines in sensitive areas and retaining and filtering polluted run-off prior to its entering estuaries.
5) Remove the excessive nutrients that have settled on the bottom of Lake Okeechobee. These are causing the lake to become eutrophic (dead).
South Florida has a looming ecological disaster within its waterways. Toxic blue-green algae blooms along the Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County are just a symptom of long-standing neglect by Florida's lawmakers and powerful vested interests. The wake-up call is that they're not motivated to solve this problem anytime soon. Herein lies a briefly explained story of power and greed in the Sunshine State.
Editorial: Treasure Coast Naturists' Analysis of an Important Environmental Issue
Blind Creek Beach lies immediately north of a major threat to the
environmental health of our coast and people