The most significant challenge facing the Everglades today
Historically, the Everglades used to cover most of South Florida, stretching from present day Orlando all the way south to the Florida Keys. Water from the Kissimmee River would fill Lake Okeechobee and then flow south into the River of Grass. But sadly, this is no longer what the Everglades looks like.
For about the past 7000 years, rain has fallen on the Kissimmee basin and flowed south into the lake. Humans have changed the timing of inflows, and maybe increased the volume a bit, and agriculture has certainly polluted that water, but it flows more or less the same today. But south of the lake, nothing works at all like it did. The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) is now the only source of water for the Everglades, and it’s polluted. So, the focus is on repairing what has been profoundly modified, and putting it back into some semblance of how it used to work.
Today, water can no longer freely flow south from Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades Agricultural Area, owned mostly by subsidized sugar companies, sits right where the River of Grass used to begin. The water in Lake O has been contaminated with all kinds of nutrients from agricultural fertilizers, like nitrogen and phosphorus, so much that the water in the lake is considered far too polluted to be sent directly on to the Everglades like it used to.
Instead, we hold all this polluted water in Lake Okeechobee until the water levels become so high that trillions of gallons of polluted water have to be dumped down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and out into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Not only is this a waste of precious freshwater, but it also damages our coastal estuaries, kills fish, and contributes to toxic Red Tide and sends toxic blue-green algae into our waterways, endangering nearly 8 million Floridians up and down the coast.
Meanwhile, The Everglades and Florida Bay, the headwaters of the Florida Keys, are desperate for clean freshwater. Everglades National Park receives less than half of the water it once did, and what’s left of the historic River of Grass will run dry if it doesn’t get more water soon.
So why can’t we just clean all of this extra water and send it south to where it belongs? Well, we’ve been trying.
Floridians consistently support Everglades restoration
What we need is a place to store this extra water south of Lake Okeechobee, so that it can be cleaned and then used both for drinking water and for Everglades restoration. And Florida voters are on board.
In 1996, 68% of Florida voters passed the ‘Make the Polluter Pay’ amendment to the Florida constitution, which states that
“Those in the Everglades Agricultural Area who cause water pollution within the Everglades… shall be primarily responsible for paying the costs of the abatement of that pollution.”
In 2010, US Sugar negotiated a contract with the State of Florida, agreeing to sell 46,000 acres of their land, 26,000 of which is directly south of Lake Okeechobee, a critical location for Everglades restoration. With this 26,000 acres, we could create the water storage areas we need so that we won’t have to dump precious freshwater into the ocean.
In 2000, bi-partisan legislation was signed into law by then-governor Jeb Bush and then-president Bill Clinton, ushering in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. This was a years-long process that brought all stakeholders to the table, including sugar and agriculture. An agreed to list of 68 projects came forward with a completion date of 2030 and a cost of $9 billion to be spilt 50-50 by the state and the federal government.
In November 2014, 75% of Florida voters amended the state constitution again. This time, to pass the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which:
“Funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands… including the Everglades”
This amendment ensures that the state has the money to carry out Everglades Restoration.
For the first time, we have the science, the money, the land, and the water to make a big difference in the fight to save the Everglades. But now, Sugar is trying to back out on their half of the deal.
The solutions are known and have already been agreed to, yet the foot dragging continues. And so do the discharges - year after year after year - to both coasts of Florida. Meanwhile, the Everglades and Florida Bay are collapsing from a lack of freshwater during drought and winter months.
Our ability to reverse the trajectory of decline in the Everglades is not just a test of our scientific knowledge, engineering smarts and our determination to never give up, but it is also about the choices we make to elect leaders who are able to address the most important challenges of our times.
Learn about the solutions here