News Press

January 24, 2017

 

We need open minds to arrive at water solutions

By Rae Ann Wessel

 

 

For 18 months in 2014 and 2015, the children of Flint, Michigan, drank water that was poisoning them – all while the government agencies responsible for their drinking water closed their eyes, pointed fingers and made light their concerns.

As Flint’s residents complained about the color, taste and odor of their water, their city government issued a news release that insisted, “Flint water is safe to drink.”

It was a monumental failure of government, one that exposed the arrogance and defensiveness of the agencies that citizens depended on to protect them.

A similar pattern is emerging here in Florida, where public health has been put at risk by outbreaks of “blue-green algae” in the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie.  The algae is more than just unsightly and smelly: it is also harmful to humans and animals.

The algae outbreaks happen when billions of gallons of excess phosphorus and nitrogen-laden water from Lake Okeechobee are discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Last year, the algae forced Gov. Rick Scott to declare a “State of Emergency” for 242 days; but that did not stop the discharges. Families with young children had to abandon their homes along the St. Lucie. Workers at one marina were forced to wear respirators.

Considering the magnitude of the environmental and economic disaster – not to mention its public health consequences – and the unwelcome national news it generated - one would expect bold and decisive action from the Governor’s office.

Instead, Gov. Rick Scott pointed fingers. He blamed the discharges on the federal government. He did so even while ignoring the appeals of elected local leaders, residents and taxpayers, to accelerate the planning of the one project that can reduce damaging lake discharges to the estuaries and provide water for the Everglades and Florida Bay; the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recognized the critical value of this CERP project and agreed to begin right away, but they need the South Florida Water Management District to participate. It has declined.

Modeling of water movement by the Everglades Foundation demonstrates that the EAA reservoir provides the unique opportunity to reduce high lake levels and estuary discharges by 50% while also  providing needed water supply for the Everglades and Florida Bay.

In contrast storage north of the lake will provide a benefit during dry seasons as a water supply for Lake Okeechobee but in wet seasons it can only  reduce damaging estuary discharges by 6% and provides no water for the Everglades or Florida Bay.

For over 20 years, engineering studies and reports of Everglades restoration have been consistent and clear:  additional storage throughout the greater Everglades is needed and storage in the EAA is crucial to reducing damaging lake discharges to the estuaries and providing water for the Everglades and Florida Bay. The plans have been evaluated by independent scientists at the National Academy of Sciences and the UF Water Policy Institute.

When the internationally-respected National Academy of Sciences last month warned that Florida needs more water storage than the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) identified 17 years ago, the District issued a news release that called the National Academy’s warnings “irresponsible” and “saturated in self-interest.”

Since 1863, the National Academy of Sciences has provided independent, objective information to the nation on matters related to science and technology.  Almost 500 members of the Academy have won Nobel Prizes and the Academy publishes one of the world’s premiere international journals of original research.

Just like the government agencies in Flint, the SFWMD - tasked by the Florida legislature with responsibility for managing and protecting our state’s water resources - seems focused on attacking the messengers.

We need a workable plan now.  We need the governor and district to stop blaming and attacking others and engage in civil, constructive discourse to stop the harm.  We can have different opinions and disagree but it should never stop the dialogue.

Florida taxpayers and voters have waited long enough: this crisis is too great, the goal of Everglades restoration too critical, for finger pointing and name-calling.

Instead of mimicking the tactics of their counterparts in Flint, we ask Gov. Scott and his appointees to start a collaborative dialogue. We can do better.  We must do better.