Since June 29, 2016, Florida has been under a state of emergency due to toxic, blue-green algae impacting four coastal counties and devastating the local economy and environment. The current algae outbreak is also a direct threat to human health as various local beaches and recreational sites have been temporary closed by health departments.
Toxic algae at a local marina in Stuart, Florida
Why is Florida experiencing a water crisis that has gained national attention? Lake Okeechobee, one of the nation’s largest freshwater bodies, is polluted by a legacy of nutrient pollution, primarily phosphorus. Unfortunately, the pollution in Lake Okeechobee is problematic however it is not the primary reason Florida’s coastal communities are adversely impacted.
Lake Okeechobee is surrounded by the 70-year old Herbert Hoover Dike. When Lake Okeechobee’s water level rises to 15 feet or higher, the only current option provided to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is to open the gates east and west and dump billions of gallons of polluted water out to sea. This phenomenon is not new. The draining of the Everglades and placement of man-made dikes and levees has short-circuited the natural way water used to flow within the Everglades ecosystem. (The graphic below demonstrates the current manner in which Lake Okeechobee water is dumped east and west.)
Prior to the federal government draining the Everglades, rainfall south of Orlando would travel down the Kissimmee River watershed, flow through Lake Okeechobee which would spill south toward Everglades National Park and Florida Bay in the Florida Keys. The building of the Hoover Dike in the late 1920’s and the construction of Tamiami Trail in the southern part of the ecosystem decapitated the Everglades from its headwater source. Additionally, 500,000 acres of sugarcane field directly south of Lake Okeechobee has also caused water to flow east and west instead of south.
Everglades restoration is 15 years in the making. Following the historic signing of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, multiple projects are currently underway. However, today’s Everglades projects are not addressing the current water crisis Florida is facing today. Lake Okeechobee’s water must be stored, cleaned and sent south.
The solution is to begin Everglades restoration projects that re-connect Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys. There are multiple steps that must be done expeditiously and simultaneously to bring relief to the current crisis.
We need to continue the bridging of Tamiami Trail on the southern end of the Florida peninsula. These bridges will enable significant water to reach Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys.
We need the United States Congress to pass the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that will authorize the Central Everglades Planning Project. The Central Everglade Planning Project will remove man-made barriers that prohibit the flow of water in the central part of the Everglades. This project provides a more natural sheet-flow of water.
And as called for in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the Everglades needs an above ground reservoir directly south of Lake Okeechobee located in the 500,000 acres of sugar cane fields that make up the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). The EAA reservoir is the most important project that will significantly reduce the amount of freshwater that is currently being dumped east and west. The critical dollars to build these project are available from both the federal government and the state of Florida. Everglades restoration is funded annually by the United States Congress via direct appropriation to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior.
In 2014, 75% of Florida voters passed Amendment 1. This constitutional amendment sets aside 1/3 of real estate tax receipts for a variety of environment and conservation issues, including Everglades restoration. The Florida Constitution authorizes Amendment 1 dollar to be used for the purchasing of land south of Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). The EAA is the home to nearly 500,000 acres of primarily sugar-cane. As referenced above, land for a future Everglades EAA reservoir can be funded through Amendment 1 dollars. All of these projects are critical to send water south and return a more natural flow of water. Storing and sending Lake Okeechobee water south hydrates the Everglades during times of drought and provides a new outlet to store water during wet years.
As mentioned, Lake Okeechobee is a polluted body of water. However, by sending lake water south, the water is cleansed before entering the River of Grass. Over the last 20 years, the state of Florida has invested over $2 billion in the creation of constructed wetlands directly south of nearly 500,000 acres of sugar cane. These wetlands are effective in removing excess phosphorus from water prior to flowing it south into the Everglades. The Everglades cannot sustain its majestic flora and fauna with an over-abundance of phosphorus in the water. The existing 60,000 acres of wetlands is the mechanism to clean water from Lake Okeechobee. Additional acres of constructed wetlands will be available in the coming years.
The Everglades is the water supply for nearly 8 million Floridians and millions of tourists. The Everglades is the home to 77 endangered or threatened species. The Everglades is the home of two U.S. National Parks. The Everglades is U.N. World Heritage Site, an International Bisophere Reserve, a Wetland for International Importance, and one of our national treasures.
Restoring the Everglades is the largest environmental restoration project in the history of the world. It is a 50/50 partnership between the federal government and the state of Florida. America’s Everglades must be protected.