In March of 2015, over 200 Everglades scientists – none of whom have a dog in any political fight – signed a petition declaring that, “As a scientist working in the Everglades, it is my scientific opinion that increased storage and treatment of fresh water south of Lake Okeechobee, and additional flow from the lake southward, is essential to restoring the Everglades, Florida Bay, and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.”
That petition has now made national headlines, and spread across social media. Called the ‘Now or Neverglades Declaration’ it has been signed by more than 24,000 people – a number that grows with each passing day.
The declaration reads as follows:
“I support the 200-plus Everglades scientists who believe that increased storage, treatment and conveyance of water south of Lake Okeechobee is essential to stop the damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries; to restore the flow of clean, fresh water to Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys; to improve the health of Lake Okeechobee; and to protect the drinking water for 8 million Floridians living in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Using Amendment 1 and other funds, we must identify and secure land south of the lake without delay, before development in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) or other uncertainties condemn our waters to irrevocable destruction.
Three nationally vital estuaries are in long-term collapse due to the damming, diking and draining of the River of Grass. The Herbert Hoover Dike that contains Lake Okeechobee prevents fresh water from following its historic path southward through the Everglades.
Today, Lake Okeechobee is treated as an impounding reservoir constantly at risk of overflow. To manage lake levels, too much untreated fresh water is discharged into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Consequently, the lack of fresh water flow through the Everglades makes Florida Bay, the largest contiguous seagrass meadow in the world and crown jewel of Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys, too salty.
The resulting salinity imbalances in all three estuaries cause seagrass die-offs, dangerous algal blooms, multi-year ecosystem collapse and economic hardship. Florida’s $9.7 billion fishing industry (129,000 jobs), $10.4 billion boating industry (83,000 jobs) and $89.1 billion tourism industry (1.1 million jobs) need healthy estuaries.
Additionally, sending water south would improve the water supply for 8 million people (1 out of 3 Floridians) by reducing the threat of saltwater intrusion into drinking wells and the Everglades.
Estimates of land required are approximately 15 percent of the EAA, neither eliminating farming nor harming Glades communities. This amount is less than half of the acreage that U.S. Sugar has offered to sell to the State of Florida, in an agreement that remains in effect until October 11, 2020.
Water storage, treatment and conveyance in the EAA is the best option to reduce the damaging releases to the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and to improve the water flow south. Especially considering the recent devastation to the coastal estuaries and ongoing massive seagrass die-off in Everglades National Park, planning for EAA projects must be expedited and be given top priority over planning for other new Everglades restoration projects.
We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. The costs and risks of further delay are staggering. Development plans in the EAA threaten to change the region, permanently severing the link between Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.”
A little over a year later, with the level at Lake Okeechobee at 14.7 feet and the Army Corps of Engineers maintaining flows to the Caloosahatchee estuary at 2,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) and the heart of hurricane season yet to begin, the petition is being touted by many as formative proof of the only solution to our seemingly never-ending water issues.
From the ‘Friends of the Everglades’ group to the City of Sanibel to Captains for Clean Water – this petition has become the rallying cry to Florida Governor Rick Scott. In July, water quality proponent group Bullsugar.org, asked the governor to sign. He declined the offer.
“We gave Governor Scott the opportunity to sign the Now Or NeverGlades Declaration, and asked the Governor to restore the River of Grass, buy the land and move the water south. He smiled, and dismissed us to his staffer. Needless to say, we were disappointed with his response but it is sadly par for the course,” said Kenny Hinkle, Jr of Bullsugar.
But others have listened: State House Representative Heather Fitzenhagen, the Mayor and City Commission of South Miami, the Martin County Commission; businesses like Patagonia, Orvis, Costa, Rapala, Florida Sportsman; national conservation organizations like Audubon, Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club; and celebrities like Erin Brockovitch, Flip Pallot, Boston Red Sox great Wade Boggs, Captain Bill from the Deadliest Catch, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers great Warren Sapp — just to name a few – have all signed the declaration.
State Senator Negron Calls for Land Purchase
Just this week, Senator Joe Negron, the incoming Florida Senate president from Stuart who has been championing clean water initiatives since 2013 – introduced a plan to purchase land owned by the sugar industry via a 50/50 split between the state and the federal government.
Negron’s plan calls for the purchase of 60,000 acres, which would be used to build a reservoir that would hold and treat 120 billion gallons of water before sending it south to the Everglades.
This would be in addition to previously mentioned projects east and west of the lake. Negron explained that the state’s portion of the project could be covered by bonding $100 million a year from the Land Acquisition Trust over the next 20 years, utilizing Amendment One funds.
The federal version of the plan, which Negron says he will present to the state legislature in 2017, would require another Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) to be passed by Congress. The last WRDA was signed by President Obama earlier this year – though it has yet to get funding. The 2016 WRDA is the first one in seven years despite a federal mandate that one be passed every two years.
Response from the sugar industry was swift. A joint statement by Florida Crystals and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida issued Tuesday, said that the proposal represents a loss of jobs and economic activity for the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee.
“Sen. Negron’s plan means losing a thousand or more jobs in the Glades communities, not to mention the impact to businesses in the community that provide services to us,” said Barbara Miedema, vice president of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.“
Jobs and businesses along the coasts are also at risk as a result of the Lake Okeechobee releases. A recent meeting hosted by the mayors of Lee County and the Florida League of Cities brought together local lawmakers from 19 south Florida counties, representing $1.3 trillion in real estate values and thousands of jobs in the tourism industry, all seeking solutions to the damaging lake discharges fouling coastal estuaries.
To sign the Now or Neverglades petition, go to gladesdeclaration.org.
Keri Hendry Weeg
Missy Layfield contributed to this article.