For the finale of "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society's "Soak-It-In Speaker Series" Dec. 2, a panel of local water quality pros examined the history of Southwest Florida's water issues and discussed steps of what can be done help clear up the state's water quality woes.
Cara Capp, Everglades Coalition restoration program manager, discussed the history of the Everglades and said that the area was actually once a lot larger than its current state.
"Everglades National Park is just a small portion of the ecosystem that once was. The historic Everglades was bigger than the state of New Jersey. It started north of what is now Disney World in the meandering Kissimmee River, it would deposit into Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of our state, and gently spill over the entire southern border. This historic flow was the perfect nature purification system for the water. As it traveled south to the southern Everglades and out from Florida Bay, the plants would remove any nutrients from the water so that every single drop that entered the Florida Bay down in the Keys was pristine. That's why our ecosystem is so biodiverse. There is no other Everglades in the world because this system was developed over many years by nature, " Capp said.
Cara Capp, Dr. Jerry Lorenz, Rae Ann Wessel and Mitch Hutchcraft came together Dec. 2 at “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to discuss what steps need to be taken to address Southwest Florida’s water quality problems.
This historic flow system worked great for nature but many settlers who came to Florida saw the land as a money-maker. Throughout the years, 50 percent of the Everglades was lost due to development.
"The Everglades was seen as the next frontier. Leaders in our state thought that we could drain and develop the lands and that it would be a new prosperous region to be celebrated throughout the country. Two of our earliest governors, Gov. Jennings and Gov. Broward sought to do just that and indeed were quite successful," Capp said.
Eventually, part of the Everglades was drained which made way for more housing and development. After land was cleared and houses were built, the flow of Lake Okeechobee was permanently changed.
"The changed flow created new outlets to the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie estuaries," she said. "Not only did the water change but the landscape of our state and community changed," she said.
Ernest Coe and Marjory Stoneman Douglas were two of the key players who pushed for the Everglades to be preserved. Decades after their efforts, President Truman designated what is left of the Everglades as a state park.
Capp says that even though there has been long-term efforts to restore the Everglades, we are still dealing with a water system that is quite wrong.
"A tremendous amount of water is discharged from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries each year. At the same time, Florida Bay and Everglades National Park remain starved for fresh water. There are a few goals for restoring the Everglades. The first is to redirect water from the coastal estuaries, the second is to clean the water to exceptional levels. We have a bit of a chicken and egg in the Everglades. We need to flow water south but it needs to be clean. There's always this trade-off between water quality and water quantity," Capp said.
Dr. Jerry Lorenz, state research director for Audubon Florida, notes that many of the points made by Capp were correct. He said the restoration of the Everglades is of global interest and it is of importance to our economy. Lorenz, who has lived in the Keys since 1989, said that we cannot fix the things that are wrong in Florida Bay until the Everglades are fixed.
"If we can restore Florida Bay, then we have by definition restored not only the Everglades but the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Estuaries as well," Lorenz said.
He also said that unfortunately it's catastrophic events like this that gets people together.
"We've got to get the freshwater flow stopped moving east and west and we've got to get it moved south. That's what Everglades restoration is all about," Lorenz said.
The other key speaker, Rae Ann Wessel, SCCF natural resource policy director, said that the Caloosahatchee was never historically directly connected as a navigable channel to Lake Okeechobee.
"In the 1880s, that changed. For 13 years, there was an effort to channelize and create a navigable connections so that we could take steamships from the Gulf of Mexico up to Kissimmee, otherwise you couldn't get there from here. The channelization went right through that marsh and the four lakes to join up to Lake Okeechobee," Wessel said.
As a result of building more channels, the smaller communities on the west side of the lake experienced flooding. To solve this problem, the Army Corps of Engineers built locks and dams to help protect the communities surrounding the lake. The issue with that now is that more storage is needed once the dams reach their maximum capacity.
"The problem with too much water is that we need more infrastructure to store that water, first to treat it then slow it down so it can come in more natural pulses to the estuaries. The problem with too little water is a policy decision which is something the water management district is often making a call about when we have water shortages. This is one where a certain amount of storage is needed but really, a lot of those decisions are policy driven," she said.
Wessel believes the only solution is to add more storage north and south of the lake. Wessel says that the water management district has begun constructing a project called the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir. The C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir will provide 170,000 acres of storage and will deliver water during the dry season. The project is set to begin in four years but Wessel is hoping to start it sooner than that. She is also working on getting storage north and south of the lake as well. According to Wessel, a project adding storage north of the lake is under way, which will also help with storage during the dry seasons.
Mitch Hutchcraft, governing board member of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, agrees with Wessel that more storage around the lake is needed.
"The vast majority of impacts that we see in Southwest Florida is what Rae Ann talked about are the drier periods. A lot of the attention on C-43 is to build a reservoir that will provide a constant flow of water to make sure we have an adequate water supply for the Caloosahatchee and the bays around Sanibel. That one project alone address 75 percent of those drought conditions," Hutchcraft said.
Hutchcraft said that there is a list of projects called the Integrated Delivery Schedule that are in the works to provide more storage to the lake.
"This has been developed over decades with the federal partners, state partners and with stake holders. All of the projects have been talked about, reviewed and designed. Most of them are permitted and authorized. I think everyone would agree that this list of projects has to be done in order to see the progress that we want to see," Hutchcraft said.