By: Charles J. Kropke
So, without condemning Florida’s coasts to their current fates, what options are viable? I suggest four. Since toxic algae blooms are the result of insufficient filtration, the answer is to substantially increase filtration wherever possible. My first three solutions do just that. My last solution will be self-evident to anyone witnessing today’s state of emergency.
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, sea grasses 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.
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.