32nd Everglades Coalition Conference, Water at Crisis Level

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    I attended a horror marathon last Friday and Saturday that kept me from sleeping, and it had nothing to do with non-stop screenings of “Creature From the Black Lagoon” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” – it was the 32nd annual Everglades Coalition Conference, “Three Estuaries; One Solution,” sponsored by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation at the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort on January 6 and 7. As experts, scientists, and speakers discussed the current and future state of our imperiled water, The Creature and Freddie Kruger paled in comparison.

    The three estuaries are the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, as well as the Florida Bay; the one solution is to divert water south through the Everglades. The conference focus is to store, treat and allow water to flow south of Lake Okeechobee as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) outlined as far back as 2000.

    Water at Crisis Level, 32nd Everglades Coalition Conference
    Over 300 attend the 32nd annual Everglades Coalition Conference.

    Cara Capp, the national conference co-chair from the National Parks Conservation Association, said “we have over 300 attendees and that is a record. There are not just the experts here, as more people experience these issues in their own backyard, like fishermen and moms and students. It is appropriate Lee County hosts this year, as water is so important to this community.”

    She emphasized that building the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir, first authorized 17 years ago, is long overdue, but cautioned that “just moving water south will not cure the problem. This is not the silver bullet; if there were we would not be hosting our 32nd annual conference and already planning our 33rd!”

    Conference co-chair Michael Baldwin of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society said he hoped “attendees take away three things: progress is being made even though 2016 was a tough year; we began critical projects like the C-43 Reservoir so the light at the end of the tunnel is really not another train; and Florida State Senate president Joe Negron from Martin County is a real positive leader. If we do not alter the current US Army Corp of Engineers timeline, Everglades improvements will not begin until 2021, with 10 to 15 years before anything of substance occurs, and we cannot wait that long.”

    Economy

    Baldwin notes “last year 1 million visitors came through ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge; after our beaches we are arguably the second most-visited attraction in Southwest Florida, so anything that negatively affects the environment negatively affects our economic impact, as every dollar spent at the Refuge translates into an additional $34 to our local economy.”

    Dr. Michael Maloney, of the Clemson University Department of Economics, estimated that the economic benefits of implementing the CERP Plan as opposed to expanding storage north of Lake Okeechobee as opponents propose: “The EAA plan will decrease releases into the estuaries by 50% while increasing water quality by 35%, leading to a 13% increase in property values equaling roughly $13 billion. Add in recreation at $5 billion and captured water at $1 billion and the CERP Plan produces a $20 billion economic increase for its $5 billion price tag, for a $15 billion profit, while maintaining 150,000 jobs and creating 100,000 new ones. The northern reservoir option will cost $2.5 billion and return less than that in economic impact, so CERP is the overwhelming choice. US Sugar says we have it all wrong, but the numbers say this is a No-Brainer.”

    Mark Anderson of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce reminded the audience that “a lot of people here live on tourism. If you hear in New York our water is lousy, you do not visit. How long does it take to recover your reputation and economy? Our environmental infrastructure needs repair just as much as our roads and bridges and dams, so let’s call it our water infrastructure as words matter! Let’s rebuild the entire water infrastructure so it works correctly, to sustain us environmentally, economically, and health-wise.”

    Health

    Water at Crisis Level, 32nd Everglades Coalition Conference
    Conference Co-chairs Michael Baldwin and Cara Capp

    Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard stated that “in 2016 Lake Okeechobee released 237 billion gallons into our estuary, and we had no idea how much of this was a health risk as the State did not provide us with accurate testing so we did our own. Now we rely on our own testing because, in addition to the health risk, there is no greater job killer than filthy water. We know first-hand what poison looks like, while hoping our environment does not kill us.”

    Dr. Edie Widder from the Ocean Research and Conservation Association warns that “irrigation water for crops undergoes zero testing so no one knows what dangerous bacteria gets into our produce, meaning we as humans are being constructed with infected building blocks! We are creating a very large generation of unhealthy citizens.”

    Jennifer Hecker of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program strongly encourages every local community to conduct its own testing because “if you don’t, you do not know if you have a problem. It is tough explaining to people that if they don’t see bacteria or smell it or have red eyes or that throat tickle there is not a legitimate health concern.”

    Local Leadership

    Deborah Drum, from the Ecosystem Restoration & Management Division of the Martin County Commissioners Office, recalls that “the St. Lucie River algae bloom turned our beautiful water into something that looks like an oil slick. Our main worry is the damage to our local economy if this happens every year. The waves that lapped up on last year’s 4th of July weekend were absolutely alien, and tourists wondered how this could happen in the United States, and media arrived in hoards from around the world. That smell is like a combination of death and sewage, and you never forget it.”

    She said Martin County “asked for state and federal help, and got a little but not nearly enough, so you really are on your own. We had some meetings with the Florida Department of Health but mostly we kept them aware of what was going on; I was personally disappointed. We had to craft our own blueprint for how to handle it then and possibly again in the future.”

    Laura Reynolds of Conservation Concepts believes that “with no government leadership, it is up to us as grassroots advocates to change our lifestyles. It is possible for Florida to be 100% energy renewable by 2050.”

    People

    Marjorie Shropshire is not a scientist or government official or activist, but a Martin County resident. “We became upset because we watched something we love die a slow death. We suffered a real bad year in 2008, with everyone saying it couldn’t get worse but it got a lot worse – our algae bloom was visible from space! You couldn’t swim or go to the beach; it was a nightmare. I wore a respirator and could still smell it. People would say our waterfront restaurants are great if the river does not stink – how would you like to live in an area where that threatens your economy and community? The St. Lucie used to be the River of Light; now we are known as the river of algae.”

    Daniel Andrews, founder of Captains for Clean Water, is a young man, but even over his short life, “nothing is like it used to be, and I did not understand why. A year ago I did not know the Everglades Coalition existed; I just knew fishing guides and boat captains were upset because of the massive releases in the heart of our key season, and my first response was it will go away and it did not. I heard a lot of uneducated opinions, so I spoke to the professionals then asked Bass Pro if they could donate their small meeting room so I could share my information with what I assumed would be a few captains.”

    He put out a single Facebook posting and 400 people showed up! “I knew I hit a nerve and here I am! My older clients get it! They come down and stay at nice hotels and go to nice restaurants but now many travel to other places with better fishing and I am seriously worried – I want a long career but if we lose our water we are done, as we do not have a backup plan, and our children and grandchildren are in serious jeopardy.”

    The End

    Rae Ann Wessel of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation observed that “if we get the three estuaries right, we will get the Everglades right. Water is the lifeblood of our economy, so maybe we need a catchy slogan like ‘Make Florida Great Again!’” Consulting engineer and biologist Allen Stewart believes that “pollution is nothing but a misplaced resource, and it is time to turn it into a virtue!”

    An audience member asked the panel of Deborah Drum, Jennifer Hecker, Edie Widder, and Dr. Larry Brand of the University of Miami if “the four of you are genuinely concerned,” with all four loudly exclaiming YES! Jennifer concluded with “we can accomplish a lot together, but we have to get ahold of this now as we are at the crisis level; we can no longer wait and must attack this right away.”

     

    Gary Mooney