The message was loud and clear from three members of the Florida Coastal and Oceans Coalition at an open public forum at Pink Shell Resort last Wednesday -one that was attended by approximately only 30 people.
High flow regulatory freshwater releases discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are damaging our coastal habitats and water quality to the point where the action will negatively affect not only our ecology but our economy, tourism industry and eventually our health in a devastating way. The problem is cited as water management, and there is not enough storage space during the rainy season.
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resource Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel, Conservancy of Southwest Florida Natural Resources Policy Director Jennifer Hecker and FCOC coordinator Ray Judah made powerpoint presentations about the scientific angles of the impact during the Coastal Estuaries in Peril forum. Afterwards, they heard public comments, answered questions and made pleas for everyone to act now.
Darker Gulf waters appear to invade the beachfront of Fort Myers Beach. It says something about water quality from polluted discharges.
All three environmentalists are urging state and federal government agencies to implement both short- and long-term solutions to prevent devastation of ecological, economical and overall quality of life. Their voices have been heard and only a conservative amount of action has been done. They believe all Southwest Floridians need to help in taking action by contacting state elected leaders to ask for support of the following federal priorities; fund the 2013 Water Resources Development Act; support a contingency authorization and funding for Central Everglades Planning Project; and fund the bridging of Tamiami Trail through the Everglades.
"We are not trying to say that the sky is falling, but when you can see dolphins and manatees dying, the water is becoming extremely unsafe. That's when we, as a community, are needed to act before we start seeing people become ill," said Hecker. "The problem is becoming so self-evident that you can't hide it anymore. When the visitors can see it and see dead sea life, you can no longer ignore that there is a problem. The situation we are experiencing is intolerable."
The two entities that control water management are the state-governed South Florida Water Management District and the federal-governed Army Corps of Engineers. The historic flow used to go south but, with a dike around the lake, the water is managed to the west and east.
"The more voices and the more diverse those voices, the more powerful the message," said Wessel. "Even if it's a quick email to list the priorities, as a taxpayer who lives in this state, you can just say I want you to take these actions."
It was stated the situation has reached "crisis proportion," while so many Southwest Floridians have fallen on "denial" by "pretending" our waters will eventually become clean of the present pollution or that the overflows will soon stop.
The fact is, while water flow rates our way were slowed in the recent past, lately they have increased due to all of the rain the lake has received.
Town of Fort Myers Beach Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen has been monitoring the situation and said the water flows have increased in the past couple of weeks. He stated that on Oct. 24, the flow was 11,688 cubic feet per second for 23,179 acre/feet and Oct. 23's measurement was 12,362 cfs for 24,514 acre/feet. At the forum, an acre/foot was described as being the size of a football field.
"Keep in mind that does not count any of the water flowing into the river from below S-79 such as water from North Fort Myers, Fort Myers, and Cape Coral," Laakkonen wrote in an email.
Scientific research shows that anything higher than 4,500 cubic feet per second is harmful to the estuaries, and high flows were up to 10,000 cu ft/s in July. Fast forward to more than three months later.
"Things are not getting fixed the way they should. There are some modest improvements here and there, but they are not going to solve our problem," said Hecker. "Killing the lake is only going to create poor water quality that comes down our river and estuaries in the future. We need to let the public know and understand that (state officials) are going in the wrong direction. The ultimate solution is they have to buy U.S. Sugar lands to put the water back flowing south and where it belongs."
Judah discussed the importance of Plan 6 -the restoration of the historic flow-way in the Everglades Agricultural Area- involving the purchasing of 153,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land and a state purchase option that expires this month for an agreed-upon lower price of $7,400 an acre, before the price dramatically rises. He stated the state should obtain the 20,000 acres from U.S. Sugars through the purchase option, then the remaining land of U.S. Sugar could be used in a land swap with Florida Crystals to be able to finalize the piece of the puzzle for land necessary to convey water to the south.
"The governor has the authority to declare a state of emergency, hold a special session with the Florida legislature, come up with the funding to purchase U.S. Sugar land and have the land necessary for the storage treatment conveyance to the south," said Judah. "The governor needs and should take steps."
Hecker began her presentation by stating four things that need to be balanced, yet are not: quality of water, quantity, timing and distribution.
"When we drain our fresh water supply, we are giving it less opportunity to replenish our ground water and we are disposing of it essentially out into the Gulf where it is not available for our use," she said.
She reported that South Florida Water Management District acknowledges that Southwest Florida is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
"When the sea level continues to rise, water backs up and we lose our flood protection," Hecker said. "We need to keep our fresh water full and pushing outward and away from our coast. The problem is really water management."
Hecker stated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is primarily responsible with the quantity of the discharges.
"But the quality of the water is really under the states control," she said. "So, when you are looking at who is responsible for the pollution, that is the state. We would like to see more leadership because we are not having enough pollution control."
Hecker explained nutrient pollution as fertilizer, human sewage and manure that aids in the growth of algae, which leads to outbreaks of algae growth.
"In some cases, these algae can produce toxins. When the algae grows out of control, that can lower the amount of dissolved oxygen in the waterway to levels that are too low to support aquatic life," she said. "That is when you get a massive fish die-off."
Coupled with more than 300 manatee deaths since January 2012, Hecker calls this really troubling times.
"These are the 'canary in the coalmine' moments that we need to pay attention to that our waterways our becoming extremely unsafe," she said.
Wessel mentioned SFWMD and Army Corps of Engineers have a 50/50 partnership that manages the decisions for the Greater Everglades system. She informed where the system starts (Orlando) and the many inflows and outflows associated with Lake O.
"Most of the time more water is coming into our river from our watershed then from Lake Okeechobee," Wessel said. "Now, we have about 24 percent of the inflow coming from Lake Okeechobee and the rest is coming from the 800,000 acres of watershed."
One of the worst years ever for hurricanes and water flow was 2005. It produced 3.7 million acre feet of water.
"Today, we have 2.03 million acre of feet of water," said Wessel. "We are basically one big storm away from being in some dangerous territory in terms of excess floods.
"The message is stop the harm by buying the land, building the bridge and moving water south."