Clean Water: A Basic Human Right

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Florida Water Policy Summit

“It is appropriate we do this water summit on this day,” said Calusa Waterkeeper Executive Director K. C. Schulberg in introducing the “Florida Water Policy Summit” on the evening of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater. “Clean water is a basic human right and a matter of social justice, just as having food trucks to assist on Fort Myers Beach for the first time was a matter of social justice. This will not change until you make the changes through a grassroots movement, so we need to count on you tonight to contact your legislators and elected officials and voice your point of view. There are a lot of challenges with water quality and it is promising that Governor Ron DeSantis came out swinging, but we need the Florida Legislature to provide the funding, so the more information you have, the more you can make your voice heard, the quicker these changes will come!”

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani spoke first. “Two of the last three years, Florida endured Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB) that required States of Emergency, and unfortunately we did learn much from the 2016 event that mostly affected the East Coast. In 2018, cyanobacteria became a public health crisis and about as potent a toxin as any on the planet, and there was no regulations in place to combat that, and that is frightening when you think about that. You don’t have to go in the water anymore or get it on your skin to be at a health risk from HABs, and when they conducted research in Stuart, Florida, last year with 100 volunteers, every single one of them tested positive for microcystins, and that is equally as frightening in many ways.”

Recent air samples conducted by Florida Gulf Coast University detected microcystins as far away as Bonita Springs, explained John. “You can breathe these in and they are small enough to go deep into the human lungs. It does not have to be this way, as other states adopted regulations to reduce the health risk, so we have to do better in Florida. The latest test results indicate that every single Floridian lives within 20 miles of an impaired waterway, and that is a sad commentary on what our State has become.”

Jaclyn Lopez, the Florida Director and Senior Attorney for the Center of Biological Diversity, addressed Lake Okeechobee Regulatory Schedule (LORS) Issues. “The United States Army Corps of Engineers regulates Lake Okeechobee releases under this program, and they intend to revisit it when the modifications to the Herbert Hoover Dike Dam are complete in 2022, but that is not good enough and there is no reason why we have to wait that long.”

She stated that the common thread to damming Lake Okeechobee is agriculture. “The initial dam was modest, made of muck and sand, but then hurricanes in the 1920s killed thousands of people, and the Federal government began to construct a permanent one, until by the 1960s it was 143 miles long, 30 feet tall and could hold up to 18 feet of water. In 2005, we had a series of hurricanes – another common theme – and the Army Corps came up with a new schedule to be in place through 2010 when improvements were to be complete, but they remain ongoing today, requiring continued releases down the Caloosahatchee and Saint Lucie estuaries. Simply put, we need a new way of doing things. Soon the State will begin taking public input on the new schedule and we have an opportunity to make two asks: don’t wait for the dam, and get the dam done by June 2020, as it can be complete by then – we demand it!”

Goldilocks Condition

Rae Ann Wessel, the Natural Resources Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, addressed the need to maintain minimum flows from Lake Okeechobee during the dry season. “The big misconception is that Lake Okeechobee is to blame for all of our water ills, but while it is a huge lake, the Caloosahatchee River watershed is the size of almost two Lake Okeechobees, so we all contribute to the problem and must work together to solve it.”

In 2004, Rae Ann coined the term, “‘The Goldilocks Condition,’ because we always seem to have too much water or not enough and that is where the minimum flow level comes into play. We are not looking to attain the perfect condition but to stop the loss of tapegrass and oysters and our critical nursery habitat. This is a natural system and it tells us what it needs, and a minimum flow of 800 to 1,000 cubic feet per second is where it needs to be, while the South Florida Water Management District authorized just 400. The challenge is to get the water right, as it can take years to recover, meaning that prevention is the story!”

Marissa Carrozzo, the Senior Environmental Policy Director for The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, spoke about Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) that is “the limit beyond which a water body cannot handle any more pollution, to help formulate a Basic Management Action Plan (BMAP), to meet TMDL limits within specific geographic boundaries to reduce pollution. In Florida, there are 416 TMDLs, with 80 more water bodies on a waiting list, and 33 BMAPs that cover 20 million acres, or 28% of the State.”

Florida must update its stormwater standards for development and redevelopment, she urged, to remove nitrogen and phosphorous to reduce blue-green algae blooms. “The traditional development pond only removes on average 40% of nitrogen and 70% of phosphorous, when the current State law requires 80%, so we fall further behind with every new development. We must strengthen and enforce local fertilizer ordinances; Naples does not have a rainy season ban, and that is a simple step to improve water quality. Stay engaged, to make sure we implement policies to clear up blue-green algae and Red Tide.”

Wetaculture & The Brick Wall

Dr. William “Bill” Mitsch is the Director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park. “Wetlands restoration can lead to clean water and get off this opiate epidemic we are on over nitrogen and phosphorous, and I use the phrase, ‘opiate’ on purpose because we are addicted to these things.” He introduced the term, “Wetaculture, from wetland and agriculture. For over 100 years, society, to make food, feeds agriculture on nitrogen and phosphorous. We should reintroduce wetlands into our landscape, to capture all the excess nutrients already in the land, and reuse them back into agriculture rather than adding more fertilizer, as we have enough now for the next century. We do this by flipping wetlands and farmlands every five years and are working on this through a pilot project at Freedom Park in Naples.”

He stressed that “farmers understand we can make money building wetlands! The only people we must convince now are government officials that this reasonable landscape balance can work. We need 100,000 acres of wetlands to clean our water and there are over 700,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area, with most controlled by the sugar industry. Wetaculture is an idea worth exploring to solve these problems.”

Captain Daniel Andrews of Captains for Clean Water concluded the forum. “Someone asked me what it was like to hear new Governor DeSantis’ water proposals; it is like hitting your head against a brick wall for three years, then stopping – it feels great! This bold vision, however, needs to be the baseline of what is acceptable, especially once special interests lobbyists who make millions of dollars, begin talking to our politicians in Tallahassee so we must pay attention, as stuff happens quickly up there, where there is nothing on the table on Monday then a vote on Wednesday, because there are only about 5 or 6 people in the key leadership positions who make all the decisions.”

Captain Andrews discussed the media’s crucial role: “It was only a few years ago they tried telling us brown water was good, but now they grill South Florida Water Management District Board Members about why they don’t step down, so that is a lovely thing. We need the media to pay attention and not take clean water for granted, to get the public involved and be a part of our victory. Don’t fall asleep because things right now seem a little better, as nothing is yet resolved. We are making a lot of progress but we must keep pressure on the government to act and keep moving forward.”

To Captain Andrews’ point, while there were several hundred people at the Florida Water Policy Summit, the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater was roughly half full, as opposed to similar events leading up to Florida’s November 2018 election, when water quality issues were fresh in the community’s mind and similar forums were standing room only. For more information on Calusa Waterkeeper, email info@calusawaterkeeper.org or see www.calusawaterkeeper.org.

 

By Gary Mooney
gary@fortmyersbeach.news