Remember the Summer of Brown Water, also known as 2013? After a record amount of rain that summer, the Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) threw open the gates and drained Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River. Our estuary turned brown and sea life suffered. So did our economy. Who wants to visit a beach with scary-looking water?
A major push then by environmentalists, local officials, businesses and citizens made an impression, however briefly, on state government and a few projects were approved — primarily water storage areas, designed to hold water during the rainy season and release it during the dry season. Those projects would only hold a small percentage of the water that flowed that summer, so mostly, they were lip service to quiet the angry natives.
For those unfamiliar with our interest in Lake O and water releases, here is a very short primer: The Army Corps of Engineers is in a decades long process of shoring up the Herbert Hoover Dike, a roughly 30-foot tall dike thrown up 80+ years ago completely encircling Lake O, built to protect communities around Lake O from flooding. Their only mandate is to protect that dike and those communities. Lake gets too high, over 15.5 feet, they open the gates and water flows into the two rivers that drain it to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean via the estuaries that exist at the mouth of both rivers. Those flows are sometimes a slow trickle and sometimes a raging torrent. We’re in a torrent phase right now-something very unusual for February.
The Army Corps is federal. SFWMD is state, with board members appointed by the governor. SFWMD works with the Corps opening the valves. The Lake used to drain into the Everglades as the source of the River of Grass. When the dike was built, that flow essentially stopped, allowing land south of the lake to become farmland, growing primarily sugarcane. The sugar lobby is very powerful. Major understatement. State officials have been treated to hunting trips to Texas courtesy of the King Ranch, the largest member of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, farming over 12,000 acres in south Florida. Supposedly arranged by the Republican Party of Florida, no one really ever explained how those kinds of trips don’t influence legislators.
From an environmental standpoint, it’s been a long and unsuccessful battle to convince the Corps and SFWMD that our estuary needs a steady supply of freshwater from Lake O year-round to maintain salinity levels. During the dry season, we need fresh water to protect oysters, seagrass and other sea life from high salinity. During the wet season, we need a steady, low flow of water to maintain a minimum salinity. Yet, what we get is too little during a normal dry season and too much during the wet season. We’re fighting the “Goldilocks Principle.”
Right now, we are supposed to be in dry season, yet we just had the wettest January on record in Lee County. The watershed for Lake O also had a very wet month and Lake O went over that magical 15.5 feet, so the gates have been opened.
Adding insult to injury, SFWMD opened the lake to back pumping for 4 days last week. Back pumping is when water in the fields south of the lake is pumped back into Lake O to protect sugarcane, often laden with fertilizers like phosphorus and nitrogen, plus who knows what other pesticides and herbicides. It all goes back into the lake.
So, we have polluted water in the lake from upstream flows, and then they add back pumped water, yet they still have the audacity to call it “fresh” water?
Those farm fields are not the only source of fertilizer pollution in our river and estuary. Estimates blame agriculture for only about 50%. The other half comes from a variety of sources ranging from septic tanks to golf courses and storm water runoff from housing developments with lush, green lawns.
This time the torrent of dark water from Lake O arrives right in the middle of tourist season. There are thousands visiting our island who have no idea why the water is so dark. Some would say we should not say anything about it – don’t want to scare anyone away. But that’s not how we roll at the Sand Paper.
The Lake O water releases impact both life and livelihood for many people, so we have covered them consistently. By doing so, we advocate for the businesses, employees and residents that rely on our water quality. Tourism employs 1 out of every 5 employees in Lee County. Tourism is critical to our economic health. We need all involved to get their act together and fix this problem.
We recognize that it’s a complex problem with lots of moving parts. Corps, SFWMD, Governor, State Legislature, U.S. House and Senate – they all own a piece of this problem. We all thought that when the brown water hit our estuary in 2013, there would be changes. And there were, small ones. Less than three years later, we face another “unprecedented” rain situation and we are right back where we were in 2013.
Local residents, visitors, businesses and communities have to convince the decision makers that our water quality and our estuaries are just as important as those sugar cane fields south of the lake. Too much water harms us too. To contact elected officials, see bit.ly/2016govtcontacts
We hope our visitors can see beyond our current water woes and appreciate all that our Island has to offer. We hope they will help us convince legislators both in Florida and back home that the Everglades and south Florida estuaries are worth preserving.