Florida’s 2018 wet season began with a bang and is causing problems with the algae blooms again. The blooms can be found in Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties. And just like 2016, it is another state of emergency. As reported by the New York Times, 90% of the surface of the 730-square-mile lake is covered this year with the algal blooms, more than has ever been seen.
On June 1st, with Lake Okeechobee rising more than a foot, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from the lake to the northern estuaries for flood protection south of the lake. With all of the rain, the water conservation areas where already above regulated schedules. This prompted Governor Scott to issue an emergency order implementing actions to lower lake levels and move more water into the conservation areas, to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and South Florida Water Management District. This allowed both agencies to waive various restrictions and regulations to store water in additional areas south of the lake. Hopefully, this will alleviate water discharges that are causing the algal blooms.
A year ago, Charles J. Kropke, did a two-part series on the algae blooms. In his second article, “Four Possible Solutions to the Massive Algae Blooms,” he suggested four possible solutions, which were:
One of the biggest time-consuming and expensive tasks of restoring the current oxbows of the Kissimmee River was negotiating and buying out all of the landowners adjacent to the river and within the river’s natural floodplain. The opportunity to restore another 20+ miles of the river and the subsequent filtration gains are amazingly close at hand. Just north of the current restoration zone is a part of the river that runs between three government-owned entities; thus avoiding the time and expense of invoking eminent domain or negotiating purchases. The Avon Park Air Force Range to the west and the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area coupled with the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park to the east can be encouraged to negotiate an easement that would allow this large section of the Kissimmee River to be restored. With that restoration would come thousands of acres of additional filtration.
A seemingly crazy, but cost-effective and brilliant solution for the algae crisis would be to use barges in southwestern Lake Okeechobee to vacuum up the muck that separates the lake bottom from the original sandy bottom. When the muck dries out in the sun across the surface of the barge, it can be unloaded at one of the lake ports and hauled away as fill dirt. Once the lake surface is back to sand, seagrasses will once again proliferate. A side benefit would be the return of robust lake fisheries.
There is one extinct ecosystem that was once part of the greater Everglades. This ecosystem is the Pond Apple forests that used to surround the southern arc of Lake Okeechobee. These forests filtered consummate amounts of nutrients and as a by-product, produced rich, dark muck which attracted agricultural interests to clear-cut the forests to cultivate vegetables and sugar cane. Although the forests are now gone; there is an opportunity to return this historic ecosystem to three of its previous locations on state-owned islands in the southern part of Lake Okeechobee. These islands; Ritta, Torry, and Kraemer could begin to reassert their traditional filtering role while also bringing back to life part of the Everglades only extinct ecosystem.
As stated earlier in this article, the state missed an enormous opportunity to acquire the lands to recreate part of Mother Nature’s original design for the Everglades. Reconnecting Lake Okeechobee with the historic Everglades is ultimately unavoidable. The problems that the state has ignored for too long have come home to roost. The only viable means to get significant amounts of water to go south again is to open up a corridor. The state should be sent back to the negotiating table to put a similar deal back on the offing. Concerned politicians, already under pressure from large constituencies of affected Floridians should form an alliance with environmental groups to ensure that this happens. Any politician unwilling to pursue this option should be unceremoniously driven from office unless, of course, we Floridians want to face the prospect of attending Mother Nature’s funeral here in our once paradisiacal state.
Seeing that were are in the same position we were two years ago, one must question whether anyone is actually listening.
Charles J. Kropke is a leading voice on Everglades issues. His Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary “The Unseen Everglades” has been aired nationally to critical acclaim. He is also the owner of Dragonfly Expeditions, a 25-year-old expeditionary tour company of Florida and the Caribbean Basin.