By Eric Eikenberg
October 30, 2016
Imagine that one of Florida’s most important flood-control structures has been ruptured, and that every day, 1.5 billion gallons of toxic water is gushing into two of Florida’s most popular sport fishing, boating and tourist areas.
Soon, a dark, smelly blue-green algae bloom forms in the waterways, with the consistency of guacamole. Below the surface, the algae is suffocating sea grass where sport fish breed; exposure to the water is toxic to wildlife and pets. For humans, simply inhaling the air near the water results in symptoms similar to asthma. People are getting sick. Those who work near the water are wearing respiratory gear.
If this were the result of a natural disaster, the news coverage would be nonstop. Cameras would be trained on the spillways as the Niagara of polluted water gushed forth; the media would post daily updates.
People would demand answers of their elected officials, and rightly so.
Yet these are the very conditions that are going on, right now, in South Florida — but they are not caused by an act of God.
The cause is the decades-long failure of both the federal and state governments to implement solutions that Washington and Tallahassee set in motion nearly 20 years ago. They know what’s needed to solve the problem, and they have the money. What’s lacking is political will.
While the politicians dawdle, Florida continues to labor under a “state of emergency” that Gov. Rick Scott was forced to declare this summer, after the algae blooms were spotted in 44 different locations along both our coasts.
We have so altered the natural plumbing of South Florida that we have blocked the slow southerly flow of most of the water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades; as a result, the Army Corps of Engineers is forced to open the spigots whenever lake levels get too high.
Besides the catastrophic algae blooms that are the direct result of these discharges, we are wasting billions of gallons of freshwater that is desperately needed during the dry season, exacerbating drought conditions across South Florida during the winter months.
Instead of irrigating South Florida, more than two-thirds of the freshwater rainfall that used to flow south into Florida Bay is instead being flushed, untreated, into the St. Lucie Estuary and the Caloosahatchee River, where it is doing incalculable damage.
We know the solution to this crisis. Hundreds of scientists and water experts have for decades all prescribed greater water storage south of the lake to hold the excess lake water so it can be cleansed and gradually sent south to irrigate the Everglades and recharge the aquifers that provide drinking water to millions.
For nearly two decades, both the federal and state governments have committed to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee for that purpose: Congress directed construction of this reservoir 16 years ago and ordered the federal government to assume half the cost, but we still don’t have a reservoir – and time is wasting.
It’s not a question of money: funding for Florida’s acquisition of the land to build the reservoir is there, thanks to voters who in 2014 passed Amendment 1, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative. By a margin of 3 to 1, voters established a dedicated source of revenue to purchase environmentally sensitive land for Everglades restoration projects like the reservoir, so we have more than ample dollars to move forward.
In the wake of this summer’s emergency declaration, the federal government signaled its renewed willingness to speed up the planning process for the project, but the water management district is dragging its feet, refusing to start planning for the project now.
Incoming state Senate President Joe Negron has proposed expediting the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, and from Fernandina Beach to Key West, thousands of Floridians are signing the #NowOrNeverglades Declaration to tell the politicians to do their jobs: build the reservoir before it’s too late, and send the water south.
The project will add billions of dollars to the Florida economy and create thousands of new jobs, but most important, it will save a unique quality of life in this very special place — and it will protect the water we need for life itself.
Florida faces an environmental disaster, no less newsworthy than if it was caused by a natural disaster or the acts of terrorists — and we know what’s needed to stop it. It’s time to move forward, use the money that 75 percent of voters set aside, and build the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
Eric Eikenberg is the CEO of The Everglades Foundation.