Billions of gallons of polluted water are flowing into the St. Lucie River, the Indian River and the Caloosahatchee Estuary from Lake Okeechobee.
The environmental damage is massive. After four years of drought and no large releases of excess water from Lake Okeechobee, the near record rainy season again has quickly filled the lake. Every time there is a wet tropical storm or series of hurricanes such as those that hit Florida in 2004-5, the lake rapidly rises 3-4 feet within days threatening the Hoover Dike and the communities south of the lake.
The Corps has no options. They must reduce the water level in Lake Okeechobee in case of a potential wet hurricane, common in even October like Hurricanes Wilma and Isaac.
Before we collectively blame the Corps for the incredible damage that is being inflicted on our once productive waters, especially the remarkable recovery of sea grasses and inland fisheries since the Okeechobee flood gates were last opened in 2010, we collectively need a short history lesson and then a firm guide on how to stop these all too frequent environmental outrages.
The great everglades ecosystem has been brutalized by a number of thoughtless decisions.
The private construction of Tamiami Trail by the Collier family to open up Naples to east coast tourists in the 1915-20’s formed a dike preventing natural water flow from the northern everglades marshes into what have become Everglades National Park (ENP) and the great fishery of Florida Bay.
Although there are gated discharge structures and culverts under Tamiami Trail, they allow a fraction of the excess rain water to flow south as the everglades system once functioned. Water is backed up throughout the Florida Everglades known as Water Conservation Areas (WCA).
Overly high water is inundating the unique ‘Tree Islands’, a major feature of the everglades system which provides essential habitat for deer and other mammals indigenous to the everglades during times of excessive rain water. The Tree Islands are also ‘sacred sites’ for the Miccosukee Native Americans.
Before the 1928 great hurricane that destroyed the small dike that then surrounded much of Lake Okeechobee, small farming communities grew around the south side of the lake. Winter vegetables were the main crop, but thousands of acres were devoted to raising cattle on the lush grass that the muck fields provided. U.S. Sugar grew a total of 50,000 plus acres of sugar cane. Their main profit was made from the sale of some of the finest Brahma cattle raised in the world for warm weather cattle ranches in Cuba, Central America and South America. The King Ranch had a similar operation for their famous crossbred cattle.
The low dike failed during a 1926 hurricane, and once again in 1928, drowning 3,000 people. President Herbert Hoover requested the Congress to pass legislation authorizing the construction of a high dike around Lake Okeechobee.
When there were long, wet summer rain seasons and fall hurricanes in the 1940’s, excess water flowed through the everglades and even over Tamiami Trail into what is now the Everglades National Park. The Corps of Engineers studied the average size of Lake Okeechobee and designed a dike to surround it. The dike was made from local sand and gravel. The Corps then made a fateful engineering decision to cut off the natural flow-way from Lake Okeechobee to the downstream everglades and dump it more ‘efficiently’ to the east and west estuaries.
Perhaps the near 700,000 acres now known as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) of rich organic soils, the byproduct of centuries of dying marsh grasses was the incentive, but this error in judgment has created a conflict that will continue until sufficient land is acquired to restore a flow-way from Lake Okeechobee to the northern Florida Everglades and is then ‘allowed’ to flow south and under Tamiami Trail into ENP.
The decision by the ‘power brokers’ to persuade the then governor of Florida and the congressional delegation to dredge the Kissimmee River to allow drainage in the headwaters of Lake Okeechobee was an ecological disaster. Thousands of acres of wetlands that served as storage for Lake Okeechobee and slowed down rain driven floods moving south into the Kissimmee chain of lakes allowed developers to sell real estate around those lakes guaranteeing an unnatural low water level. The Kissimmee chain of lakes during high rainfall periods used to hold billions of gallons of water that was slowly released down the Kissimmee into Lake Okeechobee naturally. The wetland marshes flanking the Kissimmee two mile wide flood plain were ‘wildlife treasures’ that were drained and turned into cattle pastures when the project was completed. Excessive rainwater then flowed at unnatural speed into the lake raising it to dangerous levels and carrying a pollution-filled muck that now covers half the lake’s bottom.
The Caloosahatchee River first was connected to Lake Okeechobee by Hamilton Disston, one of Florida’s pioneer speculators who envisioned steamboats moving up from Ft. Myers and then the Kissimmee River to pick up winter crops and bring their loads back to Ft. Myers for shipment north.
After about ten years, the St. Lucie Canal was completed in 1926 to provide easy access from the lake to Stuart where ships would carry vegetables and fruit to the upper east coast and provide access for the east to the west coast for pleasure boats.
It did not take any length of time for the Corps to realize that an over flowing Lake Okeechobee threatened the ‘suspect construction’ of the Hoover Dike and that the two outlets: the St. Lucie Canal and the Caloosahatchee River would serve as ‘escape valves’ whenever there was excessive rainfall and a rising lake that could threaten the integrity of the Hoover Dike, especially on the south side where farming communities had grown in size. With the connection to the everglades now severed, the present day Colonel of the Corps of Engineer and his staff have no options other than releasing billions of gallons of water that is polluted from years of agricultural back pumping from the EAA and now large amounts of nutrients flowing down the Kissimmee and the other headwaters of the lake.
During his tenure, Governor Bob Graham announced in the early 1980’s a major effort to restore the everglades system. Each successive governor has made a contribution toward that goal. The state has spent $1.8 billion acquiring land to clean up the excess water flowing from the 500,000 acres of sugar cane. A crop that ‘enjoys’ a federal taxpayer ‘guaranteed’ price. The amount of cane sugar that is permitted to be imported into the United States is ‘controlled’ by the Sugar Cartel to guarantee them maximum profit. Their leadership is unrelenting in their efforts to produce maximum profits at the everglades expense.
Unless excessive Lake Okeechobee water is cleansed through a vast series of pollution control artificial marsh systems built principally by the taxpayers of the 16 counties of south Florida for the sugar cane and winter crop growers, drainage cannot be allowed to flow into the everglades, as it will change the botanical makeup of the ‘the River of Grass’ within months.
So where are ‘we’?
Before the flow way and the pollution control marshes are built and are operational, additional storage both upstream in the lake’s headwaters and within the Everglades Agricultural Area must be acquired and a number of other ‘priorities’ must be addressed.
First, Tamiami Trail must be modified to allow massive amounts of water to flow southward into the park. A one-mile bridge and limited road raising are currently under construction; while this is a very positive first step, more needs to done! The Trail needs more bridges and road raising (up to another 2 feet) so that it is 'protected' when the Everglades and the lake are once again connected.
Additionally the southeast corner of the vast everglade system known as Water Conservation Area 3B has a vital role in delivering Okeechobee and Florida Everglade’s excess water to flow under the proposed five mile bridge. The Corps admits that when the eastern dike of Water Conservation Area 3B was constructed they did not consider ‘leakage’ to be a potential problem, as no one farmed or lived near the dike. Now there are hundreds of acres of fruit trees and thousands of homes that could be impacted if the dike allowed significant seepage.
This problem must be solved before excess water can be released into ENP relieving the entire system of too much water which forces the discharges of billions of gallons of water down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.
We also have some local ‘problems’ that must be faced with ‘private drainage systems’ that drain millions of gallons of excess water into the St. Lucie River. Canals C-23, 24 and 25 were built at the urging of the Martin and St. Lucie County citrus growers and developers who wanted their lands drained at public expense. Together with the C-44 and the St. Lucie Canal over 498,000 acres drain through canals into the estuary and lagoon.
These decisions have all combined to seriously add damaging amounts of polluted runoff into the St. Lucie and Indian Rivers. There are plans to complete a pair of reservoirs: one on the St Lucie the other on the Caloosahatchee to capture local runoff, hold it and clean it before slowly releasing it to flow into the two estuaries.
What is the ‘hope’ for the two rivers that are being used as drainage escape routes?
The federal and state governments must pay for the costs of modifications of the eastern dike of Water Conservation 3B to prevent seepage.
The Federal government should use fuel tax revenue to raise Tamiami Trail and build additional bridges to allow water to flow into ENP.
The State of Florida must acquire significant amounts of additional land both north and south of the lake or a minimum, enforceable easements to contain excessive water until it can be ‘leaked’ slowly down to the lake from the north and south through a flow-way into the everglades system.
The gross pollution of Lake Okeechobee must become a state priority. Recent phosphorus loads to Lake Okeechobee have been in the 500-ton range, more than three times the goal of 140 tons. Today estimates are that so much phosphorus has already been spread in the watershed to keep these heavy loads coming for decades. Today, nutrients from the EAA are less than 5% of the total into Lake Okeechobee. More than 90% is from the northern Lake Okeechobee watersheds. The failure of control phosphorus runoff is shared by the Florida’s Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Regulation.
Agricultural and water utility interests must accept the fact that Lake Okeechobee’s level must be held below 16 feet and that ‘back pumping’ polluted water from the EAA even in times of drought must not be permitted. Lake Okeechobee cannot continue to be considered a sewer.
Additional lands within the vast EAA must be acquired by the state and the South Florida Water Management District to construct major additional storage capacity and pollution control marshes that will dramatically reduce the nutrients flowing off the sugar cane plantations into the everglades system
The sugar cane plantations should be forced to control and treat the thousands of gallons of polluted water on their land before they discharge it into the ‘waters of the state’. They should pay a far greater share of cleaning up their wastes for the needed additional pollution control marshes.
These are tall orders, but think for a moment before we continue to rail against the Corps’ decision to lower Lake Okeechobee to protect the integrity of the Hoover Dike.
Everything on my ‘must do list’ represents one week of the Afghanistan war expenses.
Everything on my ‘wish list’ is obtainable.
Our congressional delegation has significant power in the Congress. Our Governor and Florida Commissioner of Agriculture are very persuasive with our legislature even in times of recession.
Despite the need to reduce the incredible national deficit, don’t you think man-made disasters like what is threatening our rivers and the everglades ecosystem are worthy of national and state investments?