March 27, 2016
Lake Okeechobee Water Crisis: Southern flow not a silver bullet
Plans to move more water south from the lake will please some, but there's still no easy answer on where to put millions of unwanted gallons.
No easy answer
Betty Osceola pulls back the throttle on her Cadillac-driven airboat, kills the motor and guides the craft to a stop at one of the most remote patches of dry land in the state.
She ties off to a wooden dock before walking to the edge of what she calls a tree island, a cluster of hardwood trees that hold in place the foundation of the islands her people lived and farmed on for generations.
"All of this should be dry," she says while looking at the flooded gardens on Tear Island. "We use this island for education for the students. We teach them that this provided us home, and the animals home."
This island is where children of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida learn to grow corn, pumpkins and other vegetables and fruit — much of which is used at various ceremonies throughout the year.
"It has impacted me and other Miccosukee personally," she says, "because what we do culturally on the islands, we can't do that now. It's culture. It's like a language. If you don't speak it, it goes away."
But more water could be on the way as the El Nino system that delivered record January rains is expected to bring higher-than-normal precipitation through April. Water managers are trying something new: flushing more water south toward the Everglades. That means fewer gallons rushing away from Lake O and down the Caloosahatchee River, which means healthier estuaries and cleaner water at area beaches.
Water flowing south could help restore the wetlands that have been dried and drained by man. But some won't be happy with it. And that's the problem: the water has to go somewhere, but there are major disagreements on where it should go.
“All of this should be dry. We use this island for education for the students. We teach them that this provided us home, and the animals home.”
The state is focused next on building more bridges along Tamiami Trail to allow more flow into Everglades National Park, but the water district will continue to spend millions to send water east and west.
Osceola isn't alone in her water worries. Neither are the other 600 or so members of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.
Practically every area of the historic Everglades was flooded after record January rainfall dumped more than a foot of rain across the 16-county South Florida Water Management District that stretches from Orlando to Key West.
Coastal waters in the Fort Myers and St. Lucie areas have since run brown, and a massive fish kill was reported on the east coast earlier this week.
One solution to the water management problem is to send water south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, which once received billion of gallons of pristine freshwater. The park is too dry, and areas of Florida Bay are too saline to create the ideal balance found in estuaries.
This relatively new water management tool came into play after Gov. Rick Scott convinced state and federal agencies, Florida Power & Light and private property owners south of Tamiami Trail to sign off on an agreement that allowed water from north of the road to flow south and into the eastern portion of Everglades National Park.
Sending more water south, at times, would reduce some of the harmful discharges to the east and west coasts, but the current volume is only a trickle of the amount of water coming down the Caloosahatchee.
And there are many obstacles in the way, from meeting Clean Water Act standards to protecting a rare sparrow that could be drowned out by releases that could potentially lessen impacts to coastal estuaries.
Lily pads and a cypress tree make up the landscapeLily pads and a cypress tree make up the landscape in Water Conservation Area 3A next to a tree island that is used by the Miccusukee Indian Tribe. Betty Osceola, a member of Miccusukee Indian Tribe of Florida who runs airboat rides in the area says that the water level is four feet higher than normal for this year in this spot. High amounts of rain fall and releases from Lake Okeechobee are to blame. Osceola is worried about the future of the lands.
A new way
Sending water south, instead of east and west, better mimics historic conditions and helps the Fort Myers and St. Lucie areas by cutting down on the frequency and volume of Okeechobee releases.
Building water storage reservoirs like the C43 along the Caloosahatchee River would help hold water on the landscape and keep it from going to the ocean and Gulf of Mexico. That's one option: simply build more reservoirs.
Another option is to keep sending mass volumes of freshwater down the rivers, both of which were artificially connected to the lake to drain the Everglades for development and farming.
There are also myriad constraints to moving water from Lake Okeechobee south. The Clean Water Act says water discharges into Everglades National Park must measure 10 parts per billion or less of phosphorous, which is a fertilizer.
Water in Okeechobee is 10 or 15 times higher than that, so it would need to be filtered or treated before going into park lands.
The water management system itself was designed to disrupt the historic flow of the Everglades and send water to the Atlantic and the Gulf. Billions of tax dollars have been spent to design and manage the current system, and changing that setup would be costly, critics say.
MORE: Water flowing from Lake O to eastern Everglades for first time in nearly a century
A South Florida Water Management District report shows many constraints to sending water south. It's difficult for the state to move water from south of Lake Okeechobee into the northern part of Everglades National Park because of water pump capacity, levee safety, endangered species protections and flood risks, according to the report prepared by Operations Director Jeff Kevitt.
Kevitt's presentation shows that outflows from Okeechobee are not large enough to handle significant volumes of water south. The canals south of the lake are not large enough to handle mass water releases, and moving water south could violate protections for the Everglades snail kite, the black-necked stilt, and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.
There are also flooding concerns for Homestead and Florida City.
'Do they want to see people die'
One of the complaints from coastal people is they want to see fewer discharges during high rain events because they think the water coming from the lake is dirty. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, for example, says the river water is polluted by runoff from farms and homes and that definitely hurts estuaries.
But those living around the lake say that's not true.
Jim Crego at Slim's Fish Camp in South Bay (a small farming town on the southeast shore of the lake) said water in and around Lake Okeechobee is clean and clear.
"When we catch shiners out of the lake, we use well water," Crego said while netting large baitfish used to lure largemouth bass, the most sought-after gamefish in America. "So I know it's not polluted because I use that water everyday, and the fish are alive."
Crego said people throughout the system contribute to the problems, from cattle farmers north of the lake to the city of Fort Myers pumping millions of gallons of treated effluent into the Caloosahatchee River. We raise the cattle. We grow the produce. We move the water. In some cases, we put pollution in the rain droplets as they touch down.
So it's a shared adversity, a situation in which one area of the system may flourish while another fails.
"It's been going on as long as I've been here," he said. "But when the (Army Corps and water district) starts dumping water out into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie watersheds, there's nothing we can do about it."
Kelvin Snipe of Pahokee said he's worried the Herbert Hoover Dike will one day burst. Simply allowing the dike to breach and send water gushing south, as some people in Fort Myers have advocated, could be deadly.
"People complain about the water on the coasts, but nobody's got sick eating the fish here," he said while fishing the south rim of the dike for crappie. "What would they rather see? Do they want to see people in Clewiston, South Bay and Pahokee die?"
In Moore Haven, on the west side of the lake, Ed Massey talks about the lake while working on an electric unit at an RV site.
Massey, owner of Uncle Joe's Motel and Campground, is optimistic about the future of the lake, and he said he trusts the state and federal agencies charged with managing the lake and protecting tens of thousands of lives south of Okeechobee.
"We should just step back and let Mother Nature do her job," Massey said, "we'd be a lot better off. And we need to look at who is complaining and why they are complaining."
The complaints have come mostly from coastal areas receiving the discharges, and they're mad that local waters are brown and relatively lifeless during the middle of the profitable tourist season.
"This is a short-term problem," Massey reasoned. "If it happens every 30 years, why are people complaining."
A bird in the bush
Sending too much water south could violate the Endangered Species Act by wiping out the last of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.
Two gates that allow water to flow into the western section of Everglades National Park are closed between January and the summer to protect the bird, its nests and offspring.
Along the Tamiami Trail on the edge of the River of Grass, in what water management agencies refer to as Water Conservation Area 3A, water is finally starting to recede.
This area is home to dozens of tree islands, which formed in the Everglades over the course of thousands of years and are made up mostly of hardwood, subtropical trees. The tree roots literally hold the island together.
Some islands are the size of a two-car garage while others stretch a football field or so in length. Historically these would be some of the few dry areas in the River of Grass, but they've been underwater for several weeks.
A few miles south of Osceola and the Miccosukee reservation, Cape Sable seaside sparrows are in the middle of their nesting season. Sending large volumes of water to this section of Everglades National Park could be the beginning of the end for the birds.
The Cape Sable birds have been the focus of various lawsuits. The latest came in 2013, when the Center for Biological Diversity sent a notice of intent to file a lawsuit to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps over flooding conditions after record rains that summer.
Jacki Lopez, with the Center's Florida office, said the group has not decided yet if it will file a lawsuit over January flooding.
"We're not going to sacrifice one species for another and just ignore the problem," Lopez said. "It's not single-species management. It's not one species versus another."
Lopez said the recent floods were caused more by a mismanaged system than any wildlife protections.
"We're seeing just how important it is to move forward with purchasing land south of the lake to help facilitate water storage," Lopez said, adding that she understands concerns on both coasts because of the recent water issues. "It's absolutely disgusting, and there's nobody that would disagree with that. (But) the real solution's purchasing the land and getting the flow right there."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to soon release a biological review of the bird, which will outline future protections for the sparrow and likely dictate water management on the lands where they nest.
Osceola said the bird's protections are killing off other animals and ecosystems. This one animal, she said, is taking priority over all of South Florida.
She and dozens of other protesters walked from Miami to Naples last week to highlight environmental concerns, which range from the current water management debacle to the proposed River of Grass greenway and seismic testing in Big Cypress National Preserve.
In the end, she said, the current water situation will only improve when the public demands a change in water management and species management.
"We're all in this together," Osceola said. "No matter if you're from Fort Myers or Palm Beach. It doesn't matter if you're poor or rich, this affects us all."
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