November 03, 2016
Guest column: We can't afford not to build Everglades ag area reservoir
Much has been made of the devastating environmental effects of toxic discharges of Lake Okeechobee water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, but little has been said about the importance of increased water storage to Florida’s economy.
The untreated water gives rise to regular outbreaks of smelly, slimy algae that has suffocated sea grass and killed game fish, wildlife and even domestic pets that consumed it.
Tests conducted this summer along the St. Lucie River showed levels of microcystin toxins in the algae that were 100-to-1,000 times higher than allowable under normal recreational guidance levels. In humans, microcystin can cause nausea and vomiting if ingested and symptoms of rash or hay fever if touched or inhaled. Ingesting water that contains these toxins can also cause long-term liver disease. If it gets into an open wound, it can lead to an infection.
Small wonder, then, that with the reappearance of the blue-green algae this summer in Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties along the Atlantic coast and in Lee County on the Gulf, vacations were canceled, hotel and motel rooms went vacant, and restaurants suddenly became empty.
Tourism-related businesses employ 1.2 million people in Florida, and this summer’s blue-green algae outbreaks in 44 different Florida waterways were so severe that Gov. Rick Scott was compelled to declare a state of emergency — twice.
Losses were also significant in the marine industry in the affected areas, encompassing everything from boat sales and big-box retailers to charters and small bait-and-tackle shops.
Real estate also takes a hit when polluted water flows through our waterways. Few people want to rent, buy or build a home on what columnist Carl Hiaasen dubbed “Playa Guacamole,” and a 2013 report by the Florida Realtors calculated that property values in Martin County alone might have dropped by as much as $488 million in response to that year’s discharges.
But the economic losses don’t end on the coasts.
The network of dams, dikes, canals and ditches that crisscross South Florida now siphon off fully two-thirds of the freshwater that once flowed south from Lake Okeechobee into the Florida Everglades and Florida Bay. Instead of nourishing the southern peninsula during the dry season and balancing the salinity of Florida Bay, this water now is being squandered all at an enormous environmental cost.
We forget sometimes that South Florida shares the same latitude as the Sahara Desert and, without the natural southerly flow of freshwater during the dry season, is just as parched. Former Gov. Reubin Askew put it best when he observed that without change, the region could become “the world’s first and only desert which gets 60 inches of annual rainfall.”
Without the billions of gallons of freshwater that now are being poured into the sea, South Florida faces enormous challenges during the dry months: water-use restrictions and, eventually, the possible loss of the water supply for 8 million people.
We know how to fix the problem plaguing the estuaries. The projects that are required to improve water flow have been on the drawing boards for 16 years now. The Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir is the largest in the entire plan and was designed from the outset to provide the greatest relief from the damaging discharges into the coastal estuaries.
The state’s share of funds needed to acquire the land for the EAA Reservoir project already have been identified, thanks to the 75 percent of Florida voters who in 2014 passed the Land and Water Conservation Amendment. As a project of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the cost is split between the state and federal governments.
In any event, the cost of the EAA Reservoir must be measured against the costs of not going forward: canceled reservations, lost jobs, animal deaths, destroyed habitat and lowered property values are into the billions of dollars, and we are paying for them every day we continue to delay.
Eric Eikenberg is the CEO of The Everglades Foundation. The foundation embarked on a 12-day bus tour on Oct. 26 to build public support for the EAA Reservoir. More than 33,000 Floridians have supported the project by signing the #NowOrNeverglades Declaration. The full declaration is available at EvergladesFoundation.org/NoworNeverglades-Declaration.