The following comments were made during the June 10, 2021, meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board by Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades.
When our organization was founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1969, the Everglades were in dire peril: An international jetport was planned for Big Cypress, threatening to irrevocably cut off the flow of water to Everglades National Park.
We won that battle, working with Friends and Allies who saw long-term value in preserving the only Everglades in the world.
And today, we find ourselves at another point of inflection for the Greater Everglades.
It’s become clear in recent weeks that Florida is in the throes of an escalating toxic-algae crisis. This is not just an environmental problem — it’s a looming threat to public health, and to our state’s economy.
Last month, West Palm Beach’s drinking water was compromised by blue-green algae, leaving thousands of people vulnerable to elevated levels of the toxin cylindrospermopsin, which can cause liver and kidney damage.
At the same time, over the Memorial Day weekend, a blue-green algae bloom covered an estimated 150 square miles of Lake Okeechobee.
And over the past week and a half, public health warnings have been posted advising the public to avoid contact with water along the St. Lucie Canal near Indiantown, and half a dozen spots along the Caloosahatchee.
Your staff at the District is literally chasing algae this spring, an expensive and time-consuming chore that addresses the symptoms, but not the root cause of this crisis.
These Harmful Algal Blooms are happening earlier in the year, with increasing frequency. They are the predictable result of the way we have managed Lake Okeechobee’s water, and failed to curtail nutrient pollution in Florida.
We have a near-term opportunity to impact the former:
The Army Corps is in its final months of devising a new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which will govern the lake for the next decade.
For too long, Lake O has been operated as a reservoir for industrial agriculture south of the lake. As a result, the lake is held artificially high in the dry season, leading to more toxic-algae threats.
The District can take a step toward fixing this broken system by supporting an enhanced Plan CC — one of final LOSOM alternatives being considered by the Corps.
The Corps can’t do this alone. It needs the District to use capacity in its Stormwater Treatment Areas — which are funded by taxpayers — to allow more lake water to be cleaned and sent south.
It’s been said that “Saving the Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet.”
A corollary to that can apply to our current situation: “Getting LOSOM right is a test. If we pass, we may succeed at saving the Everglades.”
If we fail, we will tread ever closer to the point of no return for Florida.