‘Get the water right’ at the ballot box
The harmful blue green algae bloom that has plagued Lee County waters is directly attributable to irresponsible government oversight on the timing and volume of water released from Lake Okeechobee and excessive nutrients, sediments and toxic brew of insecticides, pesticides and fungicides released from sugar cane fields into the Lake.
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) maintains water levels on approximately 440,000 acres of sugar cane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), south of the Lake, at 18 to 24 inches below ground to provide optimum growing conditions for sugar cane regardless of seasonal fluctuations. The SFWMD back pumps excess polluted water into the Lake during the wet season. Unlike the regulation of phosphorus south to the Everglades, numeric nutrient standards are not enforced on back pumping of nutrients into the Lake resulting in harmful algae blooms in the Lake and downstream rivers and coastal estuaries.
Unlike dams and reservoirs all over the world, there is no spillway south of the Lake to reduce water pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike and, during periods of high water levels, the United States Army Corps of Engineers only options are to use the Caloosahatchee on the west coast and the St. Lucie on the east coast as relief valves for the release of excessive polluted water to our coastal estuaries. Water that historically flowed south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades predominantly flows west and east under the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) plumbing system.
The political response from elected officials and governmental agencies on “getting the water right” in the Lake Okeechobee watershed, in order to restore coastal estuaries and the Florida Everglades, is the implementation of the multibillion dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP). Unfortunately, the Central South Florida Control project model used as the basis for Everglades restoration under CERP is seriously flawed because the model incorporated data collected from a historic 30-year dry cycle between 1965 to 1995. The SFWMD underestimated the need for water storage to restore the Everglades and there is a need for an additional one million acre feet (325 billion gallons) of water storage to properly manage maximum flow from Lake Okeechobee.
Additional lands needs to be purchased in the EAA south of Lake Okeechobee to provide a critical hydrological connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Restoration of a portion of the historic flow way in the EAA requires state acquisition of approximately 50,000 acres to provide sufficient storage, treatment and conveyance of water from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades. The combined acreage of 50,000 acres is only 7 percent of agricultural lands in the EAA and 11 percent of sugar cane fields thereby assuring a sustainable agricultural industry and restoration of Lake Okeechobee and Everglades and protection of coastal estuaries. The 50,000 acres could be combined with approximately 62,000 acres of contiguous government owned land to develop a meandering dynamic flow way that would alleviate the current destructive practice of excessive polluted Lake water released to coastal estuaries and provide much needed treated water to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
When Governor Scott was elected Governor in 2010 the state had an option to purchase land from U.S. Sugar and Scott declined the opportunity. In 2015, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam’s Office drafted the Water Bill and Representative Matt Caldwell sponsored the legislation which weakened the state’s enforcement of numeric nutrient standards of polluted water entering Lake Okeechobee in favor of volunteer “best management practices.” Scott, Putnam and Caldwell receive generous contributions from Big Sugar when campaigning for public office.
In the 2018 election cycle, the people have the opportunity to “get the water right” by voting for the right candidates that will represent the public interest.
Ray Judah is a former Lee County commissioner and a long-time environmental activist.