Florida Weekly

November 14, 2017

The key to Florida’s future is pretty clear. Or is it?

BY: Roger Williams


WHEN A STRONG SUMMER SQUALL FLOODED Miami Beach one day in August, the incident was a harbinger of what’s to come, not an anomaly, said Dr. Harold Wanless, a University of Miami geologist and climate change expert.

The local flood will be repeated many times elsewhere in coming years, just one of many environmental challenges Floridians have never faced in such large degree, he predicts.

One of the biggest problems: the nearly half-million acres of sugar cane planted mostly south and west of Lake Okeechobee in land known as the Everglades Agricultural Area, a barrier roughly 20 miles deep that blocks the traditional flow of water southward into the Everglades.

The 143-mile, 30-foot-high dike around Lake O that protects the big farming interests and some 40,000 people living near the lake is crumbling and it offers no major southern spillway. Without a spillway on the south, water can’t pass southward into the now off-limits Everglades Agricultural Area, the Everglades and Florida Bay, as it once naturally did.

“Since the dike was built, when water in the lake was held at or below 15 feet, the lake’s marshes generally thrived,” according to Audubon Florida’s official account. When water goes higher to a consistent 16 feet, “plants begin to die in the 65-square-mile submerged marsh zone.” Ultimately, that kills everything else up the food chain, including wading birds and alligators and even tourism, on which resident human life here sometimes depends.

 “After hurricanes raised the lake levels in 2004 and 2005,” reports Audubon, “the crappie fishery took about eight years to recover.”

Meanwhile the dike continues to be ranked one of the most dangerous sites in North America — one of the most likely to fail, a one on a scale of one to five — by the international insurance firm, Lloyd’s of London.

Since 2000, Americans have spent $870 million to repair that 80-year-old dike in an ongoing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project likely to cost at least another $1.5 billion, officials now say, ranking this at the high-end of the most expensive jobs ever shouldered in North America by the Army Corps.

As things stand now, those challenges and others will paint the Florida landscape of the near future far and wide with scores of local and regional floods resulting not just from rainstorms but from normal or king tides — not to mention more significant floods from future hurricanes that resemble Charley (2004) or Irma (2017) but worse: they are likely to bring life-altering storm surges.


Over time, not a long time, they’ll defeat infrastructure and hugely reduce the quality of life in the Sunshine State.

“Buying a Prius and planting a couple of trees isn’t going to change this. It’s going to happen,” Professor Wanless said.

Those floods may come with a flip side, as well — but the flip-side of a proverbial coin with no heads, only tails: Hugely destructive droughts, to name one. Polluted or salt-spoiled drinking water and compromised wastewater treatment facilities near the coasts, to name another.

Lacking restorative quantities of fresh water inflow from the north, Florida Bay is dying. Its alarming increase in salt — now twice the traditional natural level — coupled with rising sea levels also now threatens the vast Biscayne Aquifer, the subterranean source of drinking water for roughly 8 million residents of the southeast coast and the Florida Keys.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. Nightmarish blooms of algae also infest Lake Okeechobee and its tributaries — a suffocating cyanobacteria that kills plants and animals from Charlotte Harbor on the west to the once super-fecund Indian River Lagoon on the east, which stretches south more than 150 miles from the Ponce De Leon Inlet in Mosquito Lagoon to the Jupiter Inlet north of West Palm Beach.

Not only did that entire water system endure the “lost summer” of 2013, it suffered a disastrous algae bloom in 2016 that covered almost 240 square miles of Lake O as well, threatening the fisheries on both coasts, along with the tourist industry.

Now as 2017 winds down, the specter of such catastrophes looms large again.

“This is Florida so we average 60 inches of rain a year, but it isn’t that. It’s 40 inches or 80 inches and sometimes there’s only a 30-mile distance between them,” said Marty Baum, born and raised in the region to a long line of pioneering Florida families, and now Riverkeeper on the Indian River Lagoon.

“So the water has to go somewhere and now it’s polluted, and the system is overloaded.”

The effect is dire from east to west and on both coasts. The problem is neither parochial nor local. It’s regional and peninsular.

“The water management in Florida absolutely defaults to agriculture, specifically Big Sugar, which holds the plug to solving our discharge problems,” Mr. Baum said.

“There is no other viable solution than to buy some land south of the lake, put the water in the system, and send it south, clean. The management of dirty water is killing us. The algae is the new normal. It’s here to stay. And it’s only going to get worse.”

Almost a month after Hurricane Irma — early in the second week of October — water levels in Lake O had risen to more than 17 feet. And that was after the Army Corps had been releasing vast quantities of polluted, nutrient-rich water downstream, both east and west, a fact many seemed to ignore as October waned and the sunny, cooler days of November approached.

On the west side of the lake, flow through the Caloosahatchee Estuary was 14,732 cubic feet per second at the Franklin Locks in Lee County, a panic flood maintained by the Army Corps to prevent a dike collapse. The last time so much water came down the estuaries was July, 1973, said John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper.

Unfortunately, the water is untreated after decades of environmental, agricultural and urban growth planning that created the problem, and then subsequent decades of planning that has failed to solve the problem, he explained. So, it’s polluted with high-nutrient agricultural waste and leeching septic systems, the powerful stimulants of cyanobacteria.

Like Marty Baum, Mr. Cassani — an affable water scientist and 60-something distance runner for whom marathoning is a form of meditation — represents the Waterkeeper Alliance (www.waterkeeper.org), an international nonprofit organization of experts and activists based in the U.S. aiming to protect water in various regions of the world and the nation.

The Alliance has 11 waterkeepers working in Florida (sometimes called riverkeepers or coastkeepers). Those include the Indian Riverkeeper, Marty Baum, a Miami Coastkeeper, and a Collier County Waterkeeper, among the others north to south.

“At this rate of flow,” Mr. Cassani noted of post-Irma water releases from Lake O by the Army Corps, “the C-43 reservoir would fill in just 5.5 days, assuming it was empty to begin with.”

The C-43, a companion idea to the C-44 on the east of Lake Okeechobee, doesn’t exist. Like the recently approved SB10, a reservoir fast-tracked by the legislature and governor to someday store water on public lands south of Lake O, the C-43 is merely a plan — a water-storage reservoir yet to be built along the Caloosahatchee in Hendry County.

Meanwhile, the dirty water keeps coming.

It’s a long downward spiral that can stretch from boyhood into manhood. The kind of fishing Capt. Daniel Andrews, a guide, did as a boy in the Caloosahatchee estuary and Charlotte Harbor over prolific beds of sea grass and oyster banks is “all but gone,” he told Florida Weekly. Now he often has to take his clients 25 or 30 miles offshore just to find fish.

The experience encouraged him to co-found the organization that champions the cause, Captains for Clean Water. It makes good economic sense, to start with: Sport fishing alone in Florida stimulates $9.3 billion in economic activity and creates 123,000 jobs, according to the American Sport fishing Association.

Rising sea level warnings

On that wet August morning when Prof. Wanless stood in a sunny, flooding Miami Beach neighborhood, the $500 million effort of taxpayers to stiff-arm flooding with seawalls and pumps had failed. And not after a king tide or big storm, he said, but following a merely energetic rain squall.

It put everything in perspective, for him and others.

“The mayor of Miami Beach told us we’re going to fix Miami Beach so you can enjoy it 1,000 years from now as you do today,” he said. “That’s almost criminal, to say that. That’s buying into it. Miami Beach won’t survive the century, maybe not the middle of the century. But government officials are concerned about holding on to tax rolls. And nobody wants to needlessly scare people.”

On the other hand, he added, “it’s also a horrible thing to lie to them.”

The underlying reality of flooding and infrastructure collapse isn’t complicated: By 2048, sea level rise on the planet is expected to be two feet above the current level, with three feet of rise by 2063, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — which issued an addendum to that estimate in January that could take it higher.

And by 2100, when this year’s crop of newborns turns 83 — men and women destined to live with the consequences of today’s decisions — conservative estimates put sea level rise at 6.6 feet (NOAA’s addendum now says it could go to more than 8 feet).

Here’s what that means.

“A two- to three-foot rise of sea level will make nearly all of the barrier islands of the world uninhabitable, initiate inundation of a major portion of the world’s deltas, and make low-lying coastal zones like south and central Florida increasingly challenging communities in which to maintain infrastructure and welfare and to assure protection of life and property during hurricanes and other extreme events,” Professor Wanless wrote in July.

Such infrastructure failure, therefore, is destined to happen many other places besides Miami Beach in the next three or four decades, he warns, noting that Marco Island, Naples, Fort Myers and Sarasota are particularly vulnerable on the west, along with many oceanfront and island communities along the east coast. And not just after a major storm event such as Hurricane Irma.

Bottom line: Things are going to get rougher than they have been; we’re going to leave our children with that reality. Planning therefore becomes essential, say the experts. The decisions of voters and current political leaders will either inhibit the worst of this outcome, or let it happen in ways that change Florida forever.

What can we do?

“So what can we do?” asks Mr. Cassani, who spent a first career as a hydrologist in Lee County.

Now as the Calusa Waterkeeper he finds himself working at the crossroads of the lower west coast’s three greatest planning challenges: First, to overcome pollution from decades of agricultural waste flowing into Lake Okeechobee, most of it from cattle ranches and dairy farms north of the lake in the now-restored Kissimmee River basin, and from the vast cane fields around the lake owned by Florida Crystals’ Fanjul brothers, and by the U.S. Sugar Corporation. (Added to that “legacy pollution” are toxins from old septic systems and urban drainage in the Caloosahatchee basin.)

Second, to encourage elected and appointed officials to aggressively protect the waters, and thus the land, the people and the economy, with sensible development that preserves wetlands and water.

And finally, to restore sufficient quantities of timely fresh water flowing from Lake Okeechobee west down the estuary and south into the southern Everglades, thereby maintaining a healthy estuarine system and bay on the Gulf of Mexico.

The same challenges exist for waters in the St. Lucie estuary flowing east out of Okeechobee and into the southern terminus of the Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic coast, Marty Baum points out — once one of the most fecund fisheries on the planet. And so does the same question: What can we do?

No one works in a vacuum.

No one produces crops and meat, or builds new developments, or serves visitors in restaurants and hotels, or fishes, or lives here as a permanent resident, in a vacuum, he explains, echoing the opinion of many others.

Fixing the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries will also require connecting other fixes in the Everglades system and restoring both water quality and appropriate seasonal quantity — not just along the Kissimmee River north of Lake Okeechobee to the lake itself, but throughout the Okeechobee basin and all the way south through public and private lands to Florida Bay.

That’s not happening now at a pace that can accommodate growth, even though the fixes have been identified. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan enacted by the U.S. Congress 17 years ago has made little progress in water storage, acknowledged as the key to Everglades and estuary restoration.

“We have the know-how, but not the political willpower,” Mr. Cassani said, adding his voice to a chorus of observers citing the same problem.

“The problem is our elected government,” added Mr. Baum.

“The current administration (of Gov. Rick Scott) has gone out of its way to support agriculture and big oil and all of these polluting entities. They deregulated, so the state isn’t really managing our natural treasures in a manner that is sustainable. They chip away and chip away, and they’re not alone. The federal government is dismantling the EPA as we sit here. As a waterkeeper, I find that pretty grim.”

Those opinions have been echoed in part by many others, including the University of Florida Water Institute’s Dr. Wendy Graham, co-author of a seminal 2014 study analyzing water problems and solutions in Florida — a study disputed by virtually no one.

Water storage that does not now exist is the key to the practical side of the planning problem, with estimates put at an additional 1 million to 1.4 million acre feet required, she noted (an acre foot is one acre of water, one foot deep; or a half-acre of water, two feet deep, and so on.)

“Our report said, this is a big problem with hydrologic, legal, and infrastructure constraints, and there is no silver bullet that will solve the problem.

“We’ll need storage — north, south, and east and west — and probably more storage in the lake to make it work.”

As for water moved south, into the ’Glades, into Florida Bay assuring that 8 million people with more coming can keep drinking from the Biscayne Aquifer — “not only do you have to store it, but you have to convey it to where you want and treat it to legal standards,” explained Dr. Graham.

Ingenuity coupled with greed

Michael Grunwald is an Everglades expert and heir to the environmental legacy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who published the most celebrated book in the history of environmental apologists here: “The Everglades: River of Grass.”

That was 70 years ago, in 1947. Mr. Grunwald, who wrote the forward to the 60th anniversary edition of her book, authored a groundbreaking book of his own now a decade old: “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise.”

A senior staff writer for Politico Magazine, he lives in the Miami area with his wife and two young children. That fact shapes what he sees now, he says — which includes a darkly comic and troubling interpretation of Florida’s growth appearing under his byline on the cover of the November-December edition of Politico. He calls his piece, “The Boomtown That Shouldn’t Exist,” explaining a classic Florida story in the subtitle: “Cape Coral, Florida, was built on total lies. One big storm could wipe it off the map. Oh, and it’s the fastest growing city in the United States.”

Mr. Grunwald spoke with Florida Weekly not long before his story appeared in print.

“Central and South Florida used to have this fantastic water control district — it was called the Everglades,” he said.

“It rained a lot, water sat on the wetlands and trickled down, in the dry season there was enough and in the wet season it didn’t cascade on top of everything.”

But that changed.

“Then half the Everglades was paved and drained, much of the rest was dammed and ditched and diverted, and now you have 2,000 miles of levees and canals and engines cannibalized from nuclear submarines for pumps, they’re so powerful. That screwed everything up.”

Decades of American ingenuity coupled with greed has not resulted in our control of the water; on the contrary, it controls us, he acknowledged.

“Now in the wet season when Lake O gets high you have to blast it out (down the estuaries east and west). And in the dry season you get these horrible droughts.”

None of that’s natural, that’s for sure. Like Dr. Graham and John Cassani, Mr. Grunwald suggests everyone knows the practical answer to the problem.

“The answer to all of this is storage,” he said. “So you don’t have to dump water where you don’t want to in the wet season, and you have enough in the dry for agriculture, bugs and bunnies, and the 8 million people who live around here.”

Mr. Grunwald is an optimist, he insists — in part because of his children, ages 9 and 7.

“Everyone now acknowledges that Florida’s water problems and the Everglades have to be fixed, and restored. On every political side of the issue — the left-wingers, the right-wingers and the Buffalo-wingers — they know there’s no other choice. So the pressure to make the fixes will mount” — and mount because his children with many others may encourage voters to pay more attention, and elected leaders to do the right thing.

If that’s not a justifiable cause for optimism, there’s another: Some progress has been made, he said.

“The water is cleaner than it used to be. It’s still not quite clean enough, but over 30 years, and continuing over the last 10, there has been real improvement. That’s something people should feel really good about. In a sense, we’re poisoning the Everglades a little more slowly. But that’s real progress.”

Pocked by terrible periods of regress.

“The obvious moment that showed how dysfunctional the ecosystem is was the sort of stinkification of the Treasure Coast (first, in 2013). One of North America’s most bio-diverse estuaries looked like guacamole and smelled like crap.

“That’s (a result of) the main plumbing problem in Everglades, which the massive restoration project now 17 years old was supposed to fix. And it has done virtually nothing. We still have the same problem.”

Mr. Grunwald was describing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, first presented in 2000.

“So now, the Everglades is a $16 (to $20) billion water-storage project going on for 17 years, that has provided nothing. Not one reservoir has been completed. Storage wells? There were supposed to be 330 (many north of the lake). We’re no longer even thinking of them.”

There are other missed opportunities staring at the sky, too.

“The rock quarries you see when you fly into the Miami airport? The idea was, when we’re done mining for highways and driveways we’ll provide storage for water in those quarries. But that’s not going to happen anymore.”

So, it comes down to politics, he says. At least in part.

“We’re getting nothing done, and it’s partly because of politics, and partly bureaucratic inertia. There are powerful interests standing in the way of getting things done the way you might want to.”

Know-how isn’t willpower, it seems. The real solution to the environmental problems in Florida is something besides knowledge and technical savvy, longtime observers agree.

“The solution is political and we have a broken political system in which big money has corrupted policy making at the state level and other levels,” said Mr. Cassani, again echoing the voices of other scientists who have realized politics, not just science, is the answer to a better quality of life, and a less expensive way of life, for future Floridians.

“But in politics,” Mr. Cassani concluded, “the greater public interest is often subordinate to the interests of the biggest water consumers and biggest polluters.” ¦