Save Our Water


    Water is our most precious resource. We need it to live, recreate and drive our economic engine. It is our own basic element, composing roughly 60% of every human body and being. In Southwest Florida, it takes on greater importance, as so much of our environment and employment market is dependent upon our beaches, hotels, boating and fishing industry, and habitat. Our water is essential . . .

    And endangered!

    Nicole Johnson, Director of Growth Management & Planning of The Conservancy of Southwest Florida
    The capacity audience listens to a speaker at the Save Our Water Summit.

    To explore the depth of water to our daily lives, The News-Press hosted the Save Our Water Market Watch Summit for a capacity audience of over 400 on Wednesday, October 26, at the Sanibel Harbour Marriot Resort & Spa. Nineteen experts from business, government, environmental resources, tourism, agriculture, education, and related enterprises presented the state of our water today and for the future.

    In opening remarks, Nicole Johnson, Director of Growth Management & Planning of The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said that what we will hear during the summit “will educate and motivate you, in a scary sort of way! Water is the reason most of us live in Southwest Florida, and is also our greatest challenge. Our lives and livelihoods are at stake.”

    Nicole explained that for eons water moved down the Florida peninsula from north to south, “until people changed that historic route and made the Caloosahatchee River into a drain pipe for Lake Okeechobee and dried out a huge chunk of the Everglades. Water made tourism our primary industry and main attraction, but the more people that come here to live or visit, the greater the strain we place on it.”

    She said that many people think the solution is easy; all we have to do is divert Lake Okeechobee water south down into the traditional Everglades river of grass but “first we need to clean and filter it, as the Everglades is now a national park, and Federal regulations dictate that before water can move there, it must be clean enough to meet those standards. We are long way from achieving that level of cleanliness.”

    Save Our Water guests interact with conservation organizations.
    Save Our Water guests interact with conservation organizations.

    A 75-Mile Channel

    Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resources Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, called the Caloosahatchee “a 75-mile channel from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone concentrates on high water years, but seasons with low flow are just as bad. We had a lot of water in 2005 that resulted in a high nutrient content and algae blooms, but in the drought of 2008, salinity went sky high, causing the permanent loss of over 1,000 acres of our seagrass system. We blame all our issues on Lake Okeechobee but most problems come from our own backyard, as the Caloosahatchee watershed is twice the size of the lake.”

    Gary Goforth, principal engineer for Goforth LLC, favors the plan offered by State Senator Joe Negron over 20 years ago to store Okeechobee water closer to the Everglades. “Water storage is the most dramatic piece to this puzzle, and not just to the south. We need water storage around Lake Okeechobee in all four directions to change the dynamic, because every drop of polluted water we keep out of the lake is one less drop we need to clean and move later. Keeping out pollutants in the first place is the cheapest and best method. This is not a new toy for the tool box and it will not solve the problem on its own, but it is a crucial centerpiece to the plan.”

    Edwin “Win” Everham, professor of Environmental Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, stated, “the three greatest challenges to solve our water issues are ignorance, complacency and despair. Solutions exist but none are easy, and nothing is permanent except change. The Caloosahatchee is a river of change, and it will never be what it once was because we will never sever its connection to Lake Okeechobee. Ecosystems always change, and usually not in the ways we desire, and these unwanted changes all result from human interaction and interference.”

    Everham concluded by saying: “Humans pollute our water with local ingredients that have little to do with Lake Okeechobee, such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals and heavy metals like mercury. There is no monitoring program to keep track of all the things with which we foul our waterways. Solutions require a vision of where we want to go and will be expensive, but to do nothing will restrict all our lives. People are the cause of the problem; people can be the start of the solution, because nothing ruins a marketing plan quicker than the smell of dead fish!”

    Brian LaPointe, scientific expert for the Harbor Branch Research Center, explained that the major nitrogen outputs in wastewater all come from human introduction, such as sewage, fertilizers, agriculture and stormwater runoff, industry, reclaimed water and atmospheric inputs. “It is up to people to control our own personal nutrient pollution. Septic tanks are an excellent example. Florida has a much higher percentage of septic tank use than any other place in the nation, and we attract 1,000 new residents each day, many of them incorporating septic tanks.”

    He relates that people do not understand how septic tanks work, or more accurately how they do not work. “Even in the best of conditions, these tanks still pollute groundwater because they do not remove or clean nutrients. The State requires 5-1/2 feet of dry soil to install a septic tank but most coastal areas only have a fraction of that depth yet still allow them. We must improve the wastewater infrastructure with advanced treatment methods at sewage plants.”

    Your Life Depends On It

    Cris Costello, senior organizer of the Red Tide Campaign for the Sierra Club, emphasized that “it is your water so fight for it as if your life depends on it – because it does! Red tide from pollutants impacts us physically through smell, red eyes, breathing issues and even death from respiratory illnesses, with links to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and ALS. People come to recreate in our waters but they risk their health by fishing, boating and swimming. It is truly dangerous to get in our water.”

    It goes even further than that, she relates. “You risk exposure from produce grown or washed in water. This is true as well from animal consumption because we all eat fish and cattle raised on infected water. Red tide means we can become sick by breathing the air. Once you no longer trust your air and water, your ecosystem collapses, resulting in the loss of jobs, quality of life, property values and even your life.”

    She encouraged summit attendees to “keep your eyes on the prize. There are those who oppose buying land south of the lake, but do not let them distract you from the overall picture. The prize is sending water south through the Everglades as nature intended it to flow.”

    Ernie Barnett, executive director of the Florida Land Council, finds fault with that potential solution. “You cannot shift all the water south to the Everglades because, due to farming and development, only half the original Everglades still exists, so when you have high Lake Okeechobee water, you already have high water in the Everglades so there is not much room left to store additional fluids; to hold everything would require 1.3 billion acres. We need to explore additional options like underground recovery wells and new reservoir holding areas like C-43 in Hendry County.”

    Mitch Hutchcraft of the South Florida Water Management District concurs. “Regional water storage in all four directions around Lake Okeechobee is the key, and the northern sector is the missing component. There are $622 million worth of projects to the west, $850 million to the east, and $4 billion to the south, but only $122 million in improvements and storage capacity to the north.”

    Jennifer Reynolds, Lieutenant Colonel for the US Army Corp of Engineers, says that many people have a terrible misconception of Lake Okeechobee, especially as it pertains to the Herbert Hoover Dam. “Most folks think the dam is to store additional water, but it is in fact there to safely contain only what is already there.” She said that it will take “all the groups present today and more, working together, to make the world’s largest restoration project a success.”

    James Evans, director of natural resources for the City of Sanibel, gives credence to all prior speakers by saying that “there is no single project or concept that will solve all water issues, particularly with the Caloosahatchee River, but several are crucial, particularly in moving water south in dynamic storage to prevent the high flow from reaching the estuaries. Water quality and water quantity are a direct correlation.”

    He argues that there is a difference between completely solving all issues and achieving what is truly necessary. “If you could provide me a solution that would reduce environmental impacts by 80%, I would be thrilled! Short-term low-cost achievable goals that benefit the estuaries, like restoring fresh water flows, are just as important as any reduction from Lake Okeechobee. We are all looking for solutions but there is little agreement on how to proceed, and this divides our energies.”

    Everything Has a Benefit

    Jennifer Hecker, Director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, describes our water issues as “very complex and truly a puzzle to so many in so many ways! It is difficult to interconnect all the necessary pieces when you are considering a region that is half the size of the entire state of Florida. Trying to fix these different problems requires all kinds of different solutions because each is a domino that affects so many other issues. Everything has a benefit, and collectively they are greater than the individual parts.”

    Like Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds describing Herbert Hoover Dam misconceptions, Hecker says those already exist for the C-43 reservoir in Hendry County. “People think it is to take the high water flow from Lake Okeechobee but the reality is that it will hold water for release down the Caloosahatchee when it is low during dry season. We need to implement a clean water component to C-43 now, while it is under construction, so that water once there does not stagnant and grow algae that will pollute the Caloosahatchee once we release it.”

    She says we need more storage to the north and south of Lake Okeechobee, more deep ground storage wells, a comprehensive Everglades restoration plan, water quality monitoring, treatment marshes, estuary maintenance, additional reservoirs and catch basins to store more water on a smaller footprint, better water quality development standards so you do not create a new problem at one end while solving another at the other end, and an open-minded attitude to adapt plans based upon the latest scientific research, or we will one day lose all of our environmental treasures.

    “We need to bring all these pieces together,” Hecker concludes. “We are making some progress but not enough to keep pace. We are not in the middle of an environmental crisis but a human one that includes health and economics. This is not a nature problem but a manmade one that will cost a lot of funds to fix, but it is money we must spend because we cannot afford not to have clean and safe water!”


    Gary Mooney


    Photos by Gary Mooney