Water Then & Now


Dr. Rumbold Addresses the Estero Island Historical Society

“I actually put this presentation together last year to educate my fellow Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) faculty members about the history of Southwest Florida water issues, since most of them did not grow up here like I did,” said Dr. Darren Rumbold to roughly 60 people at the Estero Island Historic Society (EIHS) in “The Evolution of South Florida’s Water Quality Issues” at St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church on February 10. Dr. Rumbold, who joined the FGCU faculty in 2006, is the Director of the Coastal Watershed Institute and an Associate Professor in the Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences.

“While we will examine water quality problems tonight,” he continued, “we will not focus on those but the history of water quality issues. I put this together because we are losing the institutional memory from the various agencies, due either to retirements or people being asked to leave. If you are relatively new to our region, you heard so much about water quality over the past two years, but you don’t appreciate how long we’ve had these issues!”

He stressed that everyone must know the history of water quality, “because without this background, it is almost impossible to keep the pressure up on our elected officials to continue corrective measures. Too often in the past, we undergo Red Tide or Blue-Green Algae outbreaks and everyone gets up in arms, and then water improves for a bit and everyone goes away and before you know it, we have water quality issues again and must start all over. As I go through this presentation, I think some of these dates will surprise you! While Big Sugar and agriculture are most definitely responsible for their share of our water problems, don’t expect me tonight to just hammer them, as water quality is an urban problem as well, so we all share the blame!”

Historic Flows

Dr. Rumbold explained that before people reengineered the South Florida water system, “the natural flow was from the Kissimmee River Basin into Lake Okeechobee, then into the River of Grass and eventually the eastern Florida Bay. Then in 1881, Hamilton Disston received a contract from the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund that resulted in a canal that connected the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee. In 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, in his successful campaign to become Florida’s Governor, pledged to drain the Everglades. Later, the 1928 Lake Okeechobee Hurricane killed several thousand people, leading the government to build a dike around it, and when President Herbert Hoover visited, they named it after him.”

These changes eventually over drained the region, Dr. Rumbold related, “destroying the water flow, resulting in major droughts on Florida’s east coast, so the Central and Southern Flood Control District began, that today we know as the South Florida Water Management District. This was necessary because while the United States Army Corps of Engineers that was in charge of Lake Okeechobee and the Hoover Dike were good about moving and storing water, they were terrible at water quality through today.”

Everglades Agricultural Area

While the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) has roughly 700,000 acres of farmland, Dr. Rumbold noted, “Farmers from the early 1900s quickly learned that outside of the Lake Okeechobee rim, it was not good land, leading to huge amounts of fertilizer, so environmentalists from as far back as 1938 warned about water quality impacts, the loss of hundreds of thousands of birds and other wildlife. Major canals reported elevated nutrient counts by 1955, and Lake Okeechobee had high concentrations in 1969. This led to the 1973 Lake Okeechobee Restoration Plan, but things worsened, as huge Kissimmee Basin nutrient flows settled on the lake’s bottom, meaning Okeechobee is in really bad shape! The US Congress finally authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000, but even this did not focus on water quality, leading experts to predict Blue-Green Algae blooms. Some estimate that CERP may take an additional 30 or more years to complete.”

Estero Bay

The Caloosahatchee River’s connection to Lake Okeechobee led to a much larger local Estero Bay watershed that includes the top third of the EAA and the C-43 Reservoir Basin. “As a result,” Dr. Rumbold said, “I reinforce to people who want to blame all our water quality issues on Big Sugar that we are creating many of our own issues in our own backyard! The University of Miami proved this back in 1954, when they examined a huge Red Tide outbreak.”

To assist with water quality, several counties formed the West Coast Inland Navigation District (WCIND) in 1934 to limit Bay abuses. In 1966, Lee County citizens led the fight to establish the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, the first in the State, with it receiving the Outstanding Florida Water Designation, with buffer lands composing the Estero Bay Preserve State Park in 1987, “yet despite all this and more,” Dr. Rumbold opined, “parts of Estero Bay are now an impaired waterway, leading to a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) to reduce nitrogen and chloroform, with a Total Maximum Daily Load restriction for Nitrogen in 2009 to lower the load by 23%. We are happy about this, as we are with Governor Ron DeSantis’ decision early last year to implement a clean water component to the C-43 Reservoir, so there is some good news, but most of it over the past ten to twenty years is still not very positive.”

Dr. Rumbold concluded, “We can improve water quality in our own Caloosahatchee River Basin through our own actions. This is different than for Lake Okeechobee, as it draws so much water from the Kissimmee Basin that it will be a long time before the lake is clean. My point, however, is there has been more than enough knowledge and information about deteriorating water quality dating back 70 or more year, yet look at all of our problems. Governor DeSantis in his first year made great strides to clean up water quality, but we have to keep up the political pressure. I hate to go to places like this and make presentations like tonight without leaving you with some good news, like work on the C-43 Reservoir, but none of that means anything in the long run if we don’t work together to keep up the political will for clean water!”

“Ghost Warrior” Presentation

The final program of the 2019-20 EIHS Speaker Series is Monday, March 9, with “The True Story of a 20-Year Green Beret” with Martin G. Le Blanc and Janet Gottlieb Sailian, the co-authors of Le Blanc’s autobiography, “Ghost Warrior – the True Story of a US Army Special Forces Green Beret in the Vietnam and Cold War Eras.” “Ghost Warrior” sheds new light on a period that foreshadowed today’s geopolitics, including LeBlanc’s role in 16 major missions ranging from North & South Vietnam to Cambodia, Canada, Columbia, Egypt, Germany, Grenada, Italy, Lebanon, and the Pacific Shelf, including three missions where he sustained near-fatal injuries and one where he was the sole survivor. The presentation is free, with donations appreciated, at St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church at 5601 Williams Drive at 7 p.m.