Saving Florida’s Salt Water Estuaries and the Everglades
I have a keen interest in the politics behind the dirty water discharges from Lake Okeechobee and the effects the water is having on the environment in South Florida. Among other topics, this threat to the environment has been a theme in my books, Devil in the Grass and The Palm Reader. I plan on it being one of the major themes in the third book in the series, which will be called: The Sawgrass Savannah.
In a much earlier blog post, I mentioned how the fresh water which is being stored and discharged down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers is ruining the tenuous balance between salt and brackish waters. Instead of allowing the water to naturally flow south, down through the Everglades as it has done for millions of years, the water is being diverted down thee two rivers.
Land south of Okeechobee, has been reclaimed for farmland, and there if big money involved. I was reading a memo sent out by the Conservancy of South Florida. It concisely lays out the situation and I’m going to include it here rather than paraphrase.
Conservancy of South Florida
Here is the link – https://www.conservancy.org/file/lake-okeechobee/FAQ.pdf
Conservancy’s Fact Sheet About Impacts from Polluted Lake Okeechobee Flows & EAA Land Buy
FACTS ABOUT THE IMPACTS FROM LAKE OKEECHOBEE FLOWS AND THE NEED TO BUY EAA LANDS TO DIVERT FLOW SOUTH Are the flows polluted or is the brown color just from natural tannins? These discharges are filled with nutrient pollution, as recognized in the Caloosahatchee Total Maximum Daily Load and Basin Management Action Plan which attributes up to 61% of the nitrogen pollution reaching the estuary from Lake Okeechobee discharges, making the Caloosahatchee unsafe for swimming and fishing. 1 While natural tannins do color the water brownish from dissolved organic matter, the Caloosahatchee historically was sufficiently transparent for adequate light penetration to support healthy seagrass beds. However, 2 nutrient pollution as well as increased turbidity and suspended sediments from watershed runoff and Lake releases contribute to a darker murkier brown, which inhibit the light needed for seagrass survival
Those nutrient pollutants are coming from manmade sources such as agricultural and residential runoff, wastewater and fertilizers originating from the inland areas that drain into Lake Okeechobee as well as from within the Caloosahatchee watershed itself. 4 Are these flows negatively impacting our estuary? Yes, these flows are known to exceed the rate that causes significant harm to aquatic resources and water quality, which is 2,800 cubic feet per second (cfs). Flows have 5 been at or above that rate for weeks. 6 As of 3/17/16, Lake O discharges made up 89% of estuary discharges – comprising more than the 2,800 cfs harm threshold by themselves. Monitoring of seagrass and oyster die offs will occur after the discharges have subsided, so we won’t know the total extent of loss until a few months from now.
Does nutrient pollution contribute to red tide? Yes, scientific research indicates that though red tide (Karenia brevis) is a naturally occurring organism in the Gulf of Mexico, the intensity, frequency and duration of “bloom” events can increase with additional nutrient inputs. Therefore, the discharges which are bringing additional nutrient pollution into our estuary and the Gulf of Mexico have contributed to red tide events. Red tide and other harmful algae blooms can 7 produce toxins that are not only harmful to aquatic life but can be lethal to marine life resulting in fish kills or manatee deaths. These toxins are also known to cause human 8 health effects with latest research linking them to respiratory and serious nervous system disorders. 9 Will the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (aka CERP, including the C43 Reservoir and the Central Everglades Project) stop the harmful high discharges? No, while CERP is certainly an important part of reducing discharges, it in and of itself will not be sufficient to eliminate the discharges altogether. The C43 Reservoir project will capture some of the runoff discharging to the Caloosahatchee during high flow times but it will be 10% at most – with the majority of the benefit coming from sending that water back to the river during dry season/low flow times when more water is needed. Likewise, the Central Everglades Project (CEP) project will help to establish a portion of the pathway needed to move more water south but will not be able to do so at the rate needed to stop the discharges to the Caloosahatchee until the bottleneck in the Everglades Agricultural Area that sits between Lake Okeechobee and CEP is fixed. 10
Additionally, the water has to be sufficiently cleansed to move into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay to meet the Water Quality Based Effluent Limitation (WQBEL) and ensure that it does not destroy those last remaining natural areas of the Everglades we have left. That will involve more pollution controls and projects above and beyond 11 CERP. 12 Will reinforcing the dike around Lake Okeechobee stop the discharges? No, while reinforcing the dike is essential to protecting public health and safety, it will not greatly increase the capacity to store more water in Lake Okeechobee. The lake maximum level can only be temporarily raised in very limited instances over 15.5 feet before the lake vegetation begins to die, resulting in poorer water quality, algal blooms and ecological losses in that system, which in turn create poorer conditions in the Caloosahatchee. 1314 The solution is not to use Lake O as a reservoir but to manage the lake as a lake and build a reservoir to the south in the EAA so that when the lake levels are high, the water can be shunted south rather than discharged to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Storage north of the lake is also needed to capture and store water to keep it from Lake O and reduce damaging discharges however, storage south of the Lake is necessary to meet all restoration goals, including water conveyance and treatment to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
Is land in the EAA needed for stopping the discharges? Yes, there has been multiple scientific studies that have highlighted the necessity to buy a significant amount of land (enough to store at least.1.2 million acre feet of water, see graphic below) in order to provide the necessary storage, conveyance and treatment to divert the harmful discharges out the Caloosahatchee. Even with maximum storage north of the Lake, these studies show that land south of the lake in the EAA is absolutely essential to opening up the bottleneck to move the water south to CERP projects and then onto the Everglades and Florida Bay.
Additionally, several elements of the original CERP have been determined to be technically infeasible, warranting more surficial storage than originally contemplated in the plan. This includes the proposed 330 underground Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells which have been greatly reduced due to problems of using them for storage with the porous geology of the area. Moreover, the EAA Reservoir deeper storage project 17 originally planned on Talisman Tract now needs to be located elsewhere, since Talisman has been used for a shallower Flow Equalization Basin. 18
Different configurations have been evaluated but generally it is understood that to convey the volume necessary, and flow to treatment marshes at a rate they can handle, that there would need to be a very large reservoir, wider flow paths and additional filtration areas within the EAA. This is what prompted the South Florida Water 20 Management District to initiate the Reviving the River of Grass EAA land purchase effort in 2008 and was reinforced in the 2015 University of Florida Water Institute Study. 21 “The potential acquisition of vast tracts of long sought after land in the Everglades Agricultural Area now offers the unprecedented opportunity to reestablish an historic connection between Lake Okeechobee and the remnant Everglades through a managed system of water storage and water quality treatment.” Reviving the River of Grass, SFWMD June 2008 22 Is the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow an obstacle to moving the water south to stop these discharges? No, acquiring sufficient lands in the EAA and completing CERP will allow the water to be captured and moved south at the rate needed for stopping the harmful high discharges to the Caloosahatchee while also protecting other key resources, such as the endangered Everglades Snail Kite and the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. It is a false choice to pit one resource or part of the system against another. Additionally, there are constraints to moving more water south such as the existing bottleneck in the EAA, and the cultural and wildlife resources in Water Conservation Area 3. To optimize the system to keep water levels appropriate for the Caloosahatchee and the last remaining habitat for the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow require the same steps of acquiring EAA lands, completing CERP and completing the state/federal water quality plan . Then and only then can we restore our river while 23 protecting other vital resources including Everglades’ endangered species.