In a part of Florida that was once a vast landscape of marshes, swamps, and low-lying flatlands that could easily accommodate heavy summer rains, there is now no place for south Florida’s water to go without causing significant harm.  The water that used to take the better part of a year trickling down from the Kissimmee area and through the Everglades before entering Florida Bay now blasts into and out of Lake Okeechobee in less than a month.  Not only is that too much water too soon, but the chocolate-foam-colored waves of dirty water that are artificially forced out of the lake is fouling the coasts and making our estuaries unlivable for fish, birds, manatees, and dolphins and highly undesirable and unhealthy for people.

This unnatural and harmful situation is actually a regulated activity performed by well-meaning government entities, including state water managers and the Army Corps of Engineers.  Because the water is running off paved surfaces and agricultural fields laden with fertilizers, pesticides, septic tank effluent, petroleum products and animal wastes from urban and agricultural land from Orlando southward, during heavy rain episodes it enters Lake Okeechobee and threatens to spill over the top of the dike around the lake.  In order to keep the lake from breaching its dike and flooding agricultural fields and communities, the Corps releases millions of gallons of water into rivers flowing to the east and west whereas under natural conditions almost all water spilled over the south end of Lake Okeechobee and headed to Florida Bay through the Everglades.  The CaloosahatcheeRiver to the west and the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon to the east were never meant to carry such a huge volume or heavily polluted water.

As a result, pelicans, dolphins and manatees are dying off in extraordinary numbers due to the toxic algae blooms and bacteria in the Indian River Lagoon.  If the sight of those Florida natives floating belly-up along our shoreline isn’t enough to sicken you, the water itself is likely to.  The Health Department has posted signs warning people not to fish, drink or swim in the water.  The stench of the released overflow water pouring into the estuaries is so strong that business owners in the area say tourists are avoiding the area beaches and waterways for their usual summertime activities.

But if government is helping create the problem, is there anything it can do to fix it?  There are several steps that can be taken to stop this degradation of the state’s most treasured ecosystems.  The state and federal governments can use state funds to complete the Everglades restoration projects such as reservoirs and storage treatment areas that are already under way.  The state can also minimize how much dirty runoff is allowed into Lake Okeechobee.

We can complete the job of restoring the Kissimmee River and store much more water in its restored floodplain.  We can use state funds to compensate private landowners for storing and treating water on their lands, and we can require and help pay for local governments to retrofit their stormwater retention systems and sewer plants to relieve the runoff and reduce pollution from septic tanks.

Governor Rick Scott committed Florida on Wednesday, August 28th,  to putting $90 million into a project to add 2.6 miles of bridging to Tamiami Trail to improve water flow into Everglades National Park, which might allow for more water to be released south where it used to go versus to the St. Luce and Caloosahatchee Rivers.

This money from the state transportation department is the first considerable state commitment to the bridge, which is a federal restoration project that environmentalists have been pushing for decades.  The new project would tear down a section of the berm that Tamiami Trail road is currently built on and replace it with a bridge so that water can flow beneath the roadway.  That will help bring more water from Lake Okeechobee southward into the Everglades and help filter the water as it moves south.

But Scott stated last week that the state already has invested more than $2.5 billion in South Florida projects while the feds have spent only $989 million.  The  “he said, she said” mentality is a huge part of what is holding back sensible, timely fixes to this problem government created for us.  Scott also pledged $40 million last week to jump-start a project to help clean up polluted water from the lake, but in his statements, appeared to hold that money back until the feds strengthen the Herbert Hoover dike.

Another important part of the solution may be the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which is a kind of “Everglades restoration on fast track” approach to some of the stalled and new projects to move water south. On August 15, the South Florida Water Management District gave initial approval of the CEPP.  Other plans include storing and cleaning water before it is sent down the rivers to be discharged, as well as comprehensive plans for storing more water north of the lake, says the water management district.

On August 22, the Senate Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin held its first hearing in Stuart, and were met by hundreds of concerned citizens—some of whom waited hours to speak—as well as a collection of scientists and stakeholders.  The committee came out with four Action Steps:

  1. Review of the 2008 risk assessment used by Corps to determine the water release schedules.
  2. Look at where we can store water to minimize releases to the estuaries.
  3. Legally evaluate how the declaration of a state of emergency would impact Florida’s ability to work with the federal government to address the ongoing releases.
  4. Investigate the impact of septic tanks.

After the committee met, DEP requested increased budget authority of nearly $2.8 million in funding to help reduce the flow of water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, including changes to existing system infrastructure that will help mitigate the estuary flows and high stages in the WCAs by moving excess water south to Everglades National Park.

Amidst all of this slow government inaction, the estuaries are still fouled and smelly, and the people on both coasts are looking for their elected officials to actually do something helpful, and quit arguing about who did what and who’s paid what and when.

The Sugarland Rally being held (Sunday the 1st)  is an attempt to unite the east and west coasts of Florida in a demonstration to speak out against the pollution of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries from Lake Okeechobee discharges. As they have stated in their invitation to rally, “We are in crisis. We cannot afford to wait for ecological and economic collapse. We urge all stakeholders–especially local, state and federal governments–to act immediately.”

The demonstration is taking place in the heart of sugar country, in Hendry County on the SW side of Lake Okeechobee. The economy of the area is built around sugar and related agriculture, but promoters of the rally say they’re not meeting in Clewiston to call out the sugar industry, but to invite them to be part of a solution. The Sugarland Rally is Sunday, September 1st, from 12:00 to 3:00 PM. The rally is just off State Road. 80 at Sugarland Park on Carmita Street.

Our hope is that a group of informed and motivated citizens can build sustained momentum to figure out south Florida’s water and pollution problems, and finally get the water right.