Part one of a two-part story.
By: Charles J. Kropke
Mother Nature bears a lot of resemblance to early Florida’s pioneering women. She can be strong and persevering and can take a lot of challenges and setbacks. But when she finally collapses; succumbing to all of the stress and deprivation that has piled up on her over the years, she can very well take the whole community down with her. In Florida, Mother Nature has just been rushed to the Emergency Room.
Toxic algae blooms are invading both of Florida’s coasts, threatening the way of life for hundreds of thousands of Florida residents. Idyllic places like Sanibel and Port St. Lucie are in danger of collapsed local economies, decimated fisheries and endemic health crisis’s and the worst part of it is that there are no quick fixes. There are, however, some extremely promising solutions that can achieve a degree of relief which could set the stage for lasting results. Before this essay is over, I will offer four of these solutions.
After a series of 1920’s hurricanes that brought death and destruction to the farming towns of the southern Lake Okeechobee region, a government-led effort to construct an earthen dike was kicked off to make sure that Lake Okeechobee would never overflow its southern boundaries again. Observing two natural rivers parallel to Lake Okeechobee along Florida’s coastline (the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie River to the east) the Army Corps of Engineers decided to create artificial connector canals between each natural river and the lake. In the process, they assembled a continuous waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. This move cut Lake Okeechobee off from the historic Everglades to the south.
When the waters of the Kissimmee River to the north of Lake Okeechobee were straightened in the mid-1900’s as a result of an ill-conceived flood control measure; the Kissimmee was transformed from a 103-mile meandering river to a 56-mile drainage canal. In the process, thousands of acres of filtering marshes in the river’s floodplain were replaced with cattle ranches and development. The waters of Lake Okeechobee began a rapid deterioration; filling with organic muck laced with natural and chemical effluent.
One extremely important ecological fact to remember is that all of the bodies of water in Southern Florida, of which we are speaking, historically had sandy bottoms. This meant that the sun was able to filter through the water, bouncing off of the light sand surface and creating an ideal environment for rich grass beds. These grass beds filtered out nutrients in the rivers and lakes and provided crystal clear bodies of water. As the organic muck from the altered Kissimmee River began to accumulate in Lake Okeechobee and the now connected rivers to the east and west (St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee); the grass beds died off and the lakes and rivers clouded over. The capacity to filter organic material nearly evaporated. It is this evaporated capacity that has led to the algae blooms that are now invading our coasts.
Although parts of the Kissimmee River have been re-channelized and their corresponding filtering marshes have been revived, this fix is coming off as too little, too late. Even if the State of Florida wanted to stop the water from being shunted to the coast, they couldn’t and they shouldn’t! They couldn’t because the massive, man-made plumbing system that is today’s Everglades has no sufficient outlets to the south. Everything is designed to shed water rapidly to the east and west. The state killed the one very promising opportunity to send the water south by allowing the negotiated purchase of land from U.S. Sugar that would have reconnected Lake Okeechobee to the historic Everglades to contractually expire in 2015. This move was overtly political and heartbreaking.
Now, without a natural solution for diverting waters to the south, scientifically untested, time-consuming, tremendously expensive and politically volatile solutions like creating artificial water storage basins to hold water; conceivably able to be pumped back out in times of drought, are the only choices left.
The reason why state officials ‘shouldn’t’ stop pumping water to the coasts is clear. If the waters of Lake Okeechobee are high and a hurricane hits South Florida, the possibilities of a New Orleans-like failure of the Hoover Dike are extremely high. This would lead to the drowning deaths of thousands of residents in the towns south of the lake (Pahokee, Belle Glade, South Bay and Clewiston). These are unacceptable risks.
Coming next, possible solutions.
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.
Photographs were provided by Rebecca Fatzinger and used with her permission.