Stop Killing the Estuaries and Everglades

By Mark Perry, Executive Director, Florida Oceanographic Society February 24, 2016 
The intentional pollution and mass destruction of our estuaries is unacceptable.  Water from Lake Okeechobee is being discharged into the St. Lucie Estuary, Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee Estuary at over 6 billion gallons a day. Destruction of our oyster reefs, seagrass beds and nearshore coral reefs is the result of these discharges and the economic impacts to area businesses, tourism and real estate are significant and growing.   No water from the Lake is going south to the Everglades and hasn’t been since mid-November 2015.  In fact, the “River of Grass” stopped flowing from the Lake to the Everglades when the Hoover Dike was built in the 1930’s. The 700,000 acres south of the Lake became agricultural land known as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), mostly sugar cane, and now they receive water from the Lake only when they need it for irrigation and water supply.  The EAA also drains their land to a water table of 9.9 feet while the Lake is full at 16.2 feet.  Now the water conservation areas in the Everglades are full and flooding the Tree Islands and there is no room to take water from the Lake so it is being dumped to the Estuaries. 

Martin County requested Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, to declare a State of Emergency but instead Governor Scott directed two state agencies to deviate from their permits to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release more water through Tamiami Trail, 70 miles south of the Lake, to relieve the flooding in the Everglades water conservation areas.  The Governor said this will also relieve the releases from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries.  No it won’t, and it will take a long time before there will be any capacity to take Lake Okeechobee water into the Everglades.  In fact the Estuaries get 67% of the water coming out of the Lake, Agriculture gets 20 % for irrigation and the Everglades only gets 13% (when the Everglades used to get 100%).  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to continue maximum discharges to the Estuaries through the spring and into summer.

The Economic Council of Martin County says that the local waterways contribute more than $639 million to the local economy.  This is a substantial value, however the Council is promoting the misconception that the way to make our waterways healthier is to stop local septic tank drainage and finish 4 projects. Septic tanks in Martin County may contribute 144,000 pounds of Nitrogen each year to our waterways, but this is small in comparison to the 615,000 pounds of Nitrogen from Lake Okeechobee Martin County received in just the first two months of this year.  Also, even if we build all 68 projects in the current Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan this will not solve the problem because the right project is not part of the Plan.

Why can’t we restore the “River of Grass”?  Why can’t we reconnect the water flows from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades and stop the massive destruction of our rivers and coastal estuaries?  The money is available.  Florida has a    $ 79 billion budget with a $ 1.3 billion surplus and 75% of Florida voters passed the Constitutional Amendment 1 which provides $ 800 million each year for the next 20 years to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.   The State must buy the land and share the cost of the Everglades restoration projects 50/50 with the Federal Government.  The Florida Legislature and the Governor refuse to step up and appropriate the money for purchasing the right land and building the right project that would stop the discharges.  We need a “River of Grass “project to be a part of the Plan.  We must build enough storage, treatment and conveyance capacity to stop the discharges from the Lake to the Estuaries and send the water south, to the Everglades, where it used to go and where it is needed.   We need about 50,000 acres of land south of the Lake in the EAA to build enough storage to handle about 488 billion gallons per year (1.5 million acre feet).  We need the capacity to move 11.6 billion gallons a day (18,000 cubic feet per second) south from the Lake into the new storage and then slowly move the water through our Stormwater Treatment Area marshes (40,000 acres), which we already have, so that clean water goes into the Everglades.  This is what we need to restore the “River of Grass”.  This is what we need to stop the discharges to the coastal estuaries.  Is there any State or Federal political representative, incumbent or candidate, out there that will fight for this project? Let’s demand the “River of Grass” project begin now and stop killing our Estuaries and the Everglades.