Column: A Mistake by the lake — and how we now have a second chance for our water

By Dan Burkhardt
February 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Times]

Think of it this way. Seventy-five years ago, your neighbor had three chickens. Over the years one thing led to another, and those three chickens turned into 300,000. Now when it rains, your property is awash in what goes with your neighbor’s chickens — chicken feed, feathers and poop.

This is what has happened to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay since small-scale farming became big business in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Today, farming practices that were benign when they began decades ago threaten the Everglades and the water supply of South Florida.

Many visitors to the Florida Keys don’t realize that when they turn on the faucet anywhere from Key Largo to Key West, the water that comes out arrives via one of the longest water pipelines in the world — from an aquifer that is replenished by the Everglades more than 100 miles from Key West. Without a healthy Everglades, we have no drinking water in the Keys.

During recent weeks, the attention of the world has been focused on events in Washington, but critical decisions are being made in Tallahassee that will affect the lives of all of us who live, work, own property or vacation in Florida. These decisions will either right a century-old wrong or continue policies that jeopardize our drinking water and economy.

In the last century, Floridians have changed many things about their behavior based on a better understanding of the implications of their actions. We used to shoot wading birds for hat feathers and eat sea turtles and manatees. In 2017, we have another opportunity to change something that began in those times and is equally archaic and destructive.

In the 1800s, the soggy expanse of the Everglades appeared as wide as an ocean. At that time, it seemed of little consequence when a few subsistence farmers attempted to farm there. As the few were joined by many, it seemed beneficial to drain the swamp by building canals to create more land to cultivate. Eventually, the Everglades Agricultural Area was formed, and much of the land below Lake Okeechobee was dedicated to farming and, ultimately, the planting of sugarcane. When this large-scale farming began, no one understood its implications.

Like shooting wading birds and killing sea turtles and manatees, we now know that growing sugarcane at the top of the Everglades was destructive. Farming this drained swampland blocked the natural flow of water into the Everglades and introduced fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide runoff into the water that remained. Farming between the lake and the Everglades also requires that excess water from the lake be drained to the east and west coasts of the state, creating well-publicized and devastating conditions for those areas.

The value of the crops grown on this land is insignificant compared to the incalculable value of Florida’s clean water supply, as well as its tourism, fishing and recreation businesses, all endangered by growing crops in a place that interferes with ancient water flows. However, unlike the other mistakes cited, we are still farming the land below Lake Okeechobee.

Everglades and Florida Bay advocates want to see land — representing about 15 percent of Florida’s sugar production — purchased at fair market value and used to create a reservoir that would provide adequate clean water to nourish the Everglades and Florida Bay. Producing clean water would tangibly benefit millions of people and protect the well-being and livelihoods of millions of us who depend on clean water in all of South Florida. If we knew 75 years ago what we know now, a segment of land below the lake would have been left in a natural state to replenish our drinking water and protect recreation and tourism activities.

Today, the well-documented disasters created by toxic algae blooms on our coasts and dead sea grass in Florida Bay are broadcast around the world. These disasters threaten the state’s economy, reputation and future. We now have a viable plan to fix these problems. We can convert land that was put into agricultural use before anyone knew the consequences into a place where clean water is created to benefit all Floridians.

We have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and correct them. If not, we, our children and our grandchildren could bear the cost of losing one of the world’s unique ecosystems.

Dan Burkhardt, a retired investment banker with a home in Islamorada, is a partner in a medical venture capital firm and is a founding member of Florida Bay Forever, an organization dedicated to a healthier Everglades and Florida Bay. He is the editor of “Florida Bay Forever: A Story of Water from the Everglades to the Keys,” published in 2013. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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