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The challenge of balancing Everglades protection and sharing adversity

By Staff | Jul 21, 2010

Last week, I attended the South Florida Water Management District  (SFWMD) Governing Board workshop in West Palm Beach to  counter protests and speak in support of the U.S. Sugar land purchase and to provide public comment on policies related to Lake Okeechobee releases.

The meeting began with public comment from a group of approximately 80 protestors who were expected to show up and object to the U.S. Sugar land purchase. The issue was not on the agenda because the  ability of the District to issue Certificates of Participation, the bond funding needed to fund the purchase, is still pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

The protestors comments belied the fact that they misunderstood the facts of the land purchase and  clearly are not aware of the enormous ecological and economic benefits of the purchase. My public comment highlighted the fundamentally critical nature of the deal.

This land purchase provides the first  opportunity in 80 years to restore flow south out of Lake Okeechobee, which is the key to the restoration  of the southern third of the state. Restoring flow south is the key to restoration of the Everglades, Caloosahatchee, St Lucie, Indian River Lagoon, Big Cypress, Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay, ecosystems responsible for sustaining the quality of life we enjoy in south Florida. 

These systems provide drinking water for 8 million people, provide habitat and water quality for our recreational enjoyment and host the wild places that provide for the  rare and unique species that uniquely call Florida home.

The U.S. Sugar land purchase is more than a land deal. It is an investment in the future of our state, a down payment on the natural playgrounds for our children  and a responsibility we have to protect, preserve and restore critical habitat for  the species  who share this space.

In fact, the solution for water flow, water quality and habitat restoration  is the River of Grass project that will restore flow south out of Lake Okeechobee and provide for storage and treatment of water.  We need the new opportunities and new solutions that this once in a lifetime, willing seller opportunity present for us.

Our second issue involved commenting on the protocols for lake releases that we have been working on over the past year with a variety of stakeholders. The objective of the Adaptive Protocols for Lake Okeechobee is to maximize flexibility to manage lake releases for the benefit of all users in both dry and wet conditions. In other words, to balance  competing needs for water and  share adversity between those users when there is either too much or too little water available.

In the current final draft of the Adaptive Protocols  the SFWMD has recommended a decision flow chart that would cut back flows to the Caloosahatchee causing significant harm to the estuary while simultaneously delivering 100 percent of the water to other users. 

Both too little water and too much water harm the natural system by killing seagrass and oyster habitats upon which marine life is dependant.  This crippling loss of habitat is not comparable to a potential risk of future water shortage for other users. 

We have asked the Board to reconsider the policy of “shared adversity”  to more equitably balance the resources and the adversity. In the final analysis damage to natural systems harms our local economy and takes years for the natural systems to recover.   

The heart of this issue is a fundamental policy decision about allocating our public water resources between multiple users. Why is this discussion so critical to our system?  Because the status quo has been to cut off flows to the Caloosahatchee unilaterally during the dry conditions while all other users, agricultural and municipal, are not even subject to water conservation measures.  

Adding insult to injury during the rainy season everyone gets flood protection except the natural systems where massive volumes of water are dumped on the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.  

We continue to address this issue with the staff and Governing Board and expect it will be on the agenda at next month’s meeting. 

The past has been the era of impacting natural systems for profit.  Now  we must  commit public resources to restoration of the natural systems because development over the past 80 years did not equate the consequence of our actions to the values these vital ecosystems and our economy provide.