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Guest Commentary: Public needs to urge officials to restore health of Everglades, estuaries and water resources

By Staff | Jul 29, 2015

Recently, residents in Lee and Collier counties were advised that the smokey smell in the air was a result of a muck fire in the Everglades, which is experiencing historically low water levels.

Furthermore, severe drought conditions have been declared in Palm Beach County, and coastal areas of Miami-Dade and Broward counties are now in the extreme drought category.

A major contributing factor that continues to intensify extreme dry/wet cycles in South Florida is a flawed water management system that limits surface water flow to the Everglades and diverts billions of gallons of water to tide on the west and east coast of South Florida during the wet season. At the heart of the problem is the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) including approximately 440,000 acres of sugar cane fields, south of Lake Okeechobee that has severed the hydrological connection between the lake and the Everglades.

Unfortunately, the governor, state Legislature and South Florida Water Management District recently decided not to pursue the state option with U.S. Sugar to purchase 46,800 acres south of Lake Okeechobee with Amendment 1 funds. The land is of paramount importance to the restoration of a central flow way south of Lake Okeechobee that is critical to recharging the Biscayne Aquifer to ensure adequate water supply for millions of people on the east coast, provide for proper flow rate and volume of water to renourish the Everglades and alleviate the massive releases of polluted water currently being redirected to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie resulting in the destruction of the estuaries on the west and east coast of south Florida.

The catastrophic damage to the South Florida ecosystem and tourism and real estate-based economy along with devastating collateral impacts to water supply and public health will continue to escalate unabated until our elected and water management officials initiate proactive action to effectively and efficiently manage our precious water resources.

People throughout South Florida are starting to recognize that the South Florida Water Management District’s focus on maintaining water levels in the EAA at approximately 18 to 24 inches below ground to maximize optimum growing conditions for sugar cane, regardless of seasonal fluctuations, is not only devastating to the estuaries on the west and east coast of South Florida but is restricting the movement of water flow to the south resulting in drier than normal conditions impacting public and private utility well fields and depriving the Everglades of water to minimize fire hazardous conditions.

The state Legislature will be convening in January 2016 and have the opportunity to do the “right thing” in appropriating sufficient funds to acquire lands south of Lake Okeechobee needed to complete the final piece of the puzzle for meaningful comprehensive Everglades restoration.

Silence is consent, or the public can communicate with their elected representatives and insist that the governor and Legislature act responsibly and purchase the necessary land south of Lake Okeechobee to restore the health of our Everglades, coastal estuaries and water resources.

-Ray Judah is a former Lee County Commissioner and long-time environmental activist.