The Historical Flow — The Everglades Under Fire – Pt. 2
By Kelly Dean
It’s ironic that a state surrounded by ocean water and subject to tropical rains each summer could manifest any concern over water availability. But it does. The whole Everglades drainage basin initially started up north in the lake-covered area around Orlando, which drains south into Kissimmee River and other tributaries. Ultimately, the freshwater flows from this rainy-season drainage basin south into Lake Okeechobee, or so-called “Lake O,” which held the water temporarily.
When the rainy season hit, water overflowed the lake and started its natural progress south — as a “slow river” – 60 miles wide and 100 miles long — all the way to the Florida Bay. This rainy season process sustained the Glades through the dry season.
But when the devastating 1928 Okeechobee hurricane hit, which caused flooding and 2500 deaths, they reinforced the lake to stop the water going south of Lake O in an effort to protect the rural farming communities. A nice concept, but unfortunately, it choked the Everglades natural southern water flow and aquatic habitat, not to mention freshwater availability for a growing population.
Once protected, even more agriculture emerged south of Lake O, called the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). This section of the Glades was drained and irrigated with miles of freshwater ditches – no need for nature.
This was a perfect sequence of events for the sugarcane growers – their own perfect storm. The family farm is more of a rarity today; most of this land is owned by corporate farming operations. And if the farms are indeed family owned, they are huge businesses.
Now, when excessive rain happens, they drain the overburdened Lake O east and west via the Caloosahatchee River into the Gulf and the St. Lucie and Indian River Lagoon areas into the Atlantic. These crisis management efforts are intended to avoid bursting the Herbert Hoover Dike and flooding the EAA communities and EAA farmland. Meanwhile, the Everglades dry up, saltwater invades, algae grow and wildlife disappears.
To add insult to injury, at the coastal estuaries where the water is now released, algae growth is compounded by agricultural fertilizer chemicals from the Lake O water such as phosphorus and nitrogen. These fertilizers increase the smelly blue-green algae growth — toxic green-brown, bubbly goo that covers the coastal water — killing sea grass, killing fish, killing wildlife and ultimately killing tourism.
Saline levels get out of whack as well, affecting both flora and fauna in the brackish estuary ecosystems.
Dating back as far as the year 2000, there has been federal legislative efforts to restore the southern water flow called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Although the legislation passed, signed by President Bill Clinton with Florida Governor Jeb Bush looking on, it has stalled for 17 years.
Patience running thin, the immediate need for a reservoir to alleviate these east-west discharges forced state legislative action, called Senate Bill 10, designed to purchase EAA land for a reservoir. This idea received considerable financial push-back from heavily subsidized corporate sugar, which owns most of the EAA. Passage of a compromise version, which uses only state-owned land, will finally initiate reservoir construction to feed treated freshwater to the Everglades, if all goes according to plan.
Agribusiness lobbying, especially corporate sugar, are historically engaged in stopping — or at least impeding — restoration efforts.