Drier weather has meant a lower flow of regulatory freshwater releases discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, but the damage to Florida coastal habitats and water quality has been done and will continue on an annual basis unless water management practices change.
That was the message from a dozen speakers from both Florida coasts at a staged peaceful rally at Crescent Beach Family Park on Saturday. Keep the pressure on.
Many measures and approaches for cleaner water practices need to be looked into further, such as "Plan 6's" flow way to the south.
"Gov. Rick Scott has the power to ensure hard pollution limits are set and to make polluters stop using our streams and rivers as their own personal sewers," said Sierra Club's Cris Costello, the rally's emcee. "Until he does so, our water bodies, drinking water supplies, waterfront economy and public health will be left unprotected and unrestored."
"There is legislation pending to provide some infrastructure that doesn't exist at the moment. We are working on that," said Beach Mayor Alan Mandel. "Tourism is our industry here, but this is actually a national issue. Twenty-two percent of our $3 billion (in tourism dollars brought in; close to $600,000 million per year) is from new dollars coming into our economy. We need to speak to our snowbirds so that they can speak to their state's congressmen. We have to help them get the votes to pass it."
Beach Councilman Dan Andre said he misses the view of clean blue-green water and jokingly asked if he now needed a fresh-water fishing license to fish in the area's saltwater estuaries.
Capt. George Howell, a full-time Lee County fishing guide, said a lot of strides have been made in protecting wildlife, but man-made water pollution is affecting our sea life and waters.
"This past winter, we had over 300 manatee fatalities pretty much associated with the red tide outbreak," he said. "The No. 1 thing we can do is protect our waterways. Our waterways affect everything, including land animals and birds that feed off the water."
Capt. Don Voss, the founder and operational director of Florida east coast's Marine Cleanup Initiative Incorporated, believes the people should take over water management from the Army Corps of Engineers.
"Let's get together. One Florida. Two rivers. Unite. Let's take this down," he said.
Lilly Tougas, a seventh grader and clean water activist from the Indian River Lagoon region, has spoken to Congress on the issue.
"We need a fix to the runoff. We need your help, Save our river," she said.
Conservancy of Southwest Florida Natural Resource Director Jennifer Hecker said more water needs to be stored north of Lake Okeechobee and a wider flow path south of it. She encouraged people to go to www.conservancy.org and check out ripple effect for various ways to clean up waterways.
"We still see a lack of political will by our state leaders to buy additional lands in the Everglades agricultural area," she said. "This is the worst assault on water policy I have ever seen. We need to spread the word and reach out and help others understand what the problem is and what the solutions are. Let's get this problem fixed."
St. Lucie County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky calls the water quality problem "a human issue." He is not happy with dying seagrass.
"If the seagrass goes, so do the animals and our fishing industry," he said. "Instead of waterfront property, we will have sewage-front property. This is a billion dollar mess. We need to build the dam stronger and make it work. We need a state government to focus on the water quality. Enough is enough."
Realtor and Beach business owner Carol Ellis reported that a customer of her paddleboard business got a full body rash after falling into the bay waters a few times.
"I made a decision that I am not going to take a chance with people's lives," she said. "A lot of my colleagues told me to shut up because I am ruining their businesses saying that this water is not safe. People are getting sick and people are dying. What is it going to take?"
Ellis said an expected, documented algae bloom from the polluted waters is being predicted to be the worst in the history in the state of Florida.
"We cannot become complacent just because the water appears to be a little clearer," she said.
FMB Chamber President Bud Nocera expected to see "5,000 people" at the rally, not such a small showing. He reported negative economic numbers from a survey and cautioned people about a "creeping normality."
"Every property owner, every business person and every seasonal resident that owns property in Southwest Florida needs to pay attention to this issue," he said. "It is about a legacy that we leave to our children and our grandchildren and their children. This has to remain front and center and in people's minds. Everyone needs to become part of this movement."
Indian Riverkeeper Marty Baum reflected on the recent rally in Clewiston where 7,000 people showed up to protest, one that Facebook was effectively used as a method to get the word out. He stated that people have been sold out by elected officials and should get out and vote for environmentally conscious politicians at the next election.
"It scared the crap out of our politicians," he said. "They have cut the lakes out from underneath the clean water act. The power that we have is through networking amongst ourselves. We can make a difference."