CAN SOUTH FLORIDA SURVIVE THE LOSS OF THE EVERGLADES?
Most people who talk about the Everglades do power points with beautiful pictures with lots of arrows showing where the water goes. I’m going to wave my hands and talk. Since you are the friends of the Everglades I assume you know what the Florida peninsula looks like and where Lake Okeechobee is. You probably know that the Greater Everglades Ecosystem stretches from Orlando through the Keys and in South Florida goes from coast to coast.
I’m not going to drag you through ancient details,but for innocent visitors today I will run quickly through what was there and what is there. Then we’ll talk about today and what we need to do to make sure South Florida has a tomorrow.
Florida’s problem with water management is that we don’t do averages. It almost always rains too much or too little. It can change its mind from flood to drought in 3 months. There is a pattern of dry winter and wet summer but no piece of that pattern can be trusted to repeat itself from year to year. We average 55 inches a year and sometimes it rains more than 100 inches and sometimes only 35 inches.
In the beginning, Governor Napolean Bonaparte Broward and the Florida populace dedicated themselves to getting rid of water and draining the swamps. Then we found ourselves out of water in the dry times.
Florida’s natural systems had a way of dealing with those extremes. In this vast flat state the water spread out all over the place. I think we still forget that this was the best way to get rid of too much water. Shallow warm water evaporates like crazy and throws away the excess to the sky. In drought, the water goes underground and back to narrow channels and hardly evaporates at all.
From Orlando to the Lake 100 miles of Kissimmee River wound slowly through a wide floodplain that slowed the water down and cleaned it up and spread it out in wet time and concentrated it in dry times.
Lake Okeechobee had no dike around it and sometimes the natural shoreline disappeared as the water spread out miles from the Lake – especially in the NW corner.
Below the Lake was the great pond apple swamp, so dense you couldn’t see the sun at noon. That was the sump for the Lake with a low rise at the south end that held water in the swamp and built the deep peat beds that are the richest part of the Everglades Agricultural Area just south of the Lake.
The water left the pond apple swamp squeaky clean at the 10 ppm phosphorous level that supported the sawgrass river that trickled slowly down south to Florida bay and ran out through coastal creeks.
In the early 1900s we set out to get rid of all that water with ditches and drag lines.
That was then.
Going from top to bottom (not chronologically) here’s what we did.
Our most recent human stupidity was to turn the 100 mile winding Kissimmee into 50 mile ditch. After that more water came to Lake O faster and dirtier.
The great Miami hurricane of 1926 went on to Lake Okeechobee and killed 200 people at the western edge of the Lake at Moore Haven. The Corps closed the City down because of bodies everywhere.The town was underwater for eight weeks.
So they built a little dike to make the Lake behave.
The 1928 storm roared in off the ocean at Jupiter. It hit the Lake and sloshed everything to the far side. It sloshed back and killed more than 2000 people from Port Mayaca through Clewiston.
So we built the Hoover Dike to cage the Lake. We didn’t actually build the dike all the way around the Lake ‘s northern end until after WWII.
With lots of drag lines and ditching and draining, the old custard apple swamp became an agricultural area -the EAA. Way back in the twenties , it started as vegetable and a little sugar cane and over the years expanded into vast sugar cane fields with a little bit of vegetables.
Back in the twenties we built the Tamiami Trail and put a dam across the river of grass.
In 1947 we had the wettest hurricane we had ever seen on top of a rainy wet season and two tropical depressions. All the school children in Miami had to have typhoid shots because of flooding over septic systems. Daddy couldn’t find a place to milk the cow without the bucket floating away. The sawgrass Everglades spread out all the way east to Galloway Rd.
So the Corps built a levee and told the Everglades to stay where it belonged.
In the 60’s we had a long drought. Wells went salt.Everglades fires put smog over Miami. The Interior Department declared that we were killing Everglades National Park and we started to face the consequences of over draining South Florida.
Hydrologists and biologists knew our water management system wasn’t working. Politicians didn’t know or didn’t care.
We built more levees and created the Water Conservation Areas north of the Tamiami Trail.
In the late 70’s Lake Okeechobee went belly up in a blue green algae bloom. We discovered blue green algae was really ugly toxic stuff. The fish died. The Lake stunk to high heaven. Towns around the Lake lost their water supply.
After it did that three years in a row politicians realized there were problems. Through a slow and painful process we moved the polluting dairies from north of the Lake and we stopped back pumping sugar cane runoff from the south into the Lake.
Then in 1992 Congress directed the Corps to fix the Central and South Florida Flood Control project that had build the levees after 1947.
Lake Okeechobee calmed down and Florida Bay went belly up in a pea green algae bloom that killed the sponges and grassbeds and fed on itself. The bonefish still haven’t come back.
The feds sued the state for sending dirty water to a National Park. Governor Lawton Childs laid down his sword before the federal judge and said “What do we have to fix it?” The judge told him and the state started building STAs – stormwater treatment areas -to clean up sugar’s runoff.
And in the 1990s Governor Childs appointed the Governors Commission for a Sustainable South Florida to work with the Corps to follow the Congressional directive to repair the environmental damage done by the C&SF project.
In 1998 after massive discharges down the St. Lucie Canal, lesioned fish appeared in the estuary. That’s a very polite way to talk about fish swimming around with large red holes in them.
By 2000 CERP was born – the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Congress adopted CERP, almost unanimously, in 2002. Sugar lobbyists and Audubon representatives walked the halls of Congress arm-in-arm to lobby FOR passage of CERP.
In spite of the enthusiasm, progress has been slow,.
Right now, all over this state, you will find full page ads in large and small newspapers and flyers and internet “news magazines” shouting IT’S NOT SUGAR’S FAULT.
Knowing we had met the enemy and they is us and Florida had done done to itself, why do we blame sugar?
I think the important thing is to remove the word “blame”. They’ve been growing sugar in the Glades since the 20’s. They are growing lots more sugar now and lots less vegetables, but they’ve been farming there for decades. Why is it their fault?
I would suggest that it is not some evil corporate greed, but mostly the simple fact of location. The sugar fields in the EAA keep the water from being cleaned up in the old custard apple sump and flowing down to Everglades National Park in rate, quantity, timing, and water quality that could support the wondrous diversity of the unique ecosystems of the National Park to the south.
Part 1 of the problem is location. They are in the way of sending water south.
Part 2 is that as sugar acreage expanded we promised to guarantee their irrigation needs. There is no water source in the shallow dish that is the EAA. Every time it doesn’t rain they have to pump water in from Okeechobee. Every time it does rain they have to pump runoff to a stormwater treatment area to get cleaned up.
That means we have to keep Lake O too full in the winter dry season in case sugar needs it for irrigation. If it rains in the dry season and they don’t need the water, we need to dump 2 feet of water from the 600,000 acre Lake somewhere. We need to do it in a hurry.There is not time to clean it up.
In average years the system works. In rainy years it doesn’t. In dry years we have over-committed the Lake’s water supply and there is not enough to go around.
So let’s say it’s not sugar’s fault but without their cooperation, we can’t solve the problem. If they want to keep raising cane and be guaranteed first priority for water use from Lake Okeechobee and have taxpayers pay for stormwater treatment areas where their runoff gets first priority -IF, we want to do all that for sugar AND send water south for Miami, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, we have to have a reservoir in the EAA.
1. We could stop the sugar subsidy.
2. We could rescind their guarantee that they can have all the irrigation water they want whenever they want it. That would keep the Lake lower and provide capacity for the extra runoff from a rainy year.
3. We could free up STA capacity or build even more STAs so that excess Lake O water could be sent south in quantity and timing necessary to support the natural systems to the south. Several years ago there was a 30,000 acre fire in Big Cypress, Dade wells were threatened with salt intrusion, and Florida Bay was starting the cycle of going belly up from hyper-salinity. But the STAs were all chock full of cane field runoff so Okeechobee water could not be sent south. Instead they dumped it on the coastal estuaries.
That brings us back to CERP – the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. It was a plan for peaceful co-existence of sugar farming and the rest of South Florida. It’s gotten a fair amount of criticism for that.
Some us pointed out back in 1998 that it was probably cheaper to buy 600,000 acres for $3000 an acre ($1.8 billion) than to build CERP. Then there would be nothing in the way of moving water south, we wouldn’t have to keep Okeechobee too full, and we could use the present STAs to clean up Lake O water and send it south.
But , hopefully, back in 2000, we did forge an effective compromise.
Now sugar doesn’t want to play.
They claim we don’t need to send water south and it is a whole new idea incompatible with CERP. That’s hogwash. The reason the feds are paying for half of CERP is Everglades National Park. The Park cannot be restored if it does not have more normal flows.
Next, sugar lobbyists throw in different excuses and then back away and invent yet another red herring. At the first hearing on Joe Negron’s bill to send the water south, the director of the SFWMD announced that they already had the land they needed for a reservoir south of the Lake. I sent Pete an email saying “That’s wonderful news. Could you tell us where the land is?” I never got an answer.
They suggest that we could just fix the Lake dike and hold all the excess water there. I’m told that by an engineer I trust that we could do that if we fixed the dike AND made it 14ft higher. Given two or three rainy years in a row, which does happen, the water piles up pretty quickly when there is no an outlet for the Lake.
Why not hold it all north of the Lake and pump it down ASR wells? After all, most of the water comes from north of the Lake? Hey – it always did come from north of the Lake, even before Mickey Mouse and the channelizing of the Kissimmee, the water from the Lake moved south. That’s why there is an Everglades.It had to go somewhere.
The firing squad of full page ads and flyers and paid internet hacks attacking Negron keeps moving the target. Sometimes it’s “We don’t need it at all.”
Sometimes the message is “Stay the course! We can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. We’ll think about that ‘later'”
It is not possible to keep up with all the excuses and all the red herrings and it’s not profitable to try.
Opponents paint a simple minded and inaccurate picture about what the CERP component south of the Lake is designed to do. They look at it as a static system. They suggest it is simply another reservoir where we will put excess Lake water instead of discharging it to the estuaries. They point out that it is too small to hold all that water.
That wasn’t the plan.
Think of it rather as a dynamic system. Instead of sending field runoff to STAs every time it rains, put it in the reservoir. Instead of taking water from the Lake every time it doesn’t rain, pump it out of the reservoir. Don’t bother to clean it if you’re recycling it to cane fields. That frees up space in the STAs to send a steady stream of clean well-timed Lake water south. With water available from the reservoir for irrigation, you don’t have to keep the Lake so full to guarantee sugar’s irrigation needs.
The Corps confirmed at the January EVCO meeting that without the south of the Lake component to send water south, CERP won’t work.
In March, sugar quit firing in all directions and made it clear that they would not sell EAA land. Not now. Not EVER.
We’re at impasse.
And practicality speaking if the President of the Senate can’t get a bill passed to buy the land we need now, then CERP is probably over.
Someone told me that given the title of my speech -“Can South Florida Survive Losing the Everglades?” – it should be a very short speech.
The answer is “No”
The Governor’s Commission in the 1990’s – mostly business people rather than environmentalists – concluded unanimously:
“South Florida is not sustainable on its present course.”
From north to south:
The coastal estuaries in Stuart and Ft. Meyers will be irrevocably destroyed. That’s not my language. It is the language of the staid Corps of Engineers. Our estuary is getting to be like a punch drunk prizefighter. It is losing its resilience. Every time it gets hit it’s less likely to get up.
That’s true with or without the toxic algae that rolled down from the Lake in 2013 and 2016.
I don’t have time to tell you how scary cyanotoxins are. Put the peer reviewed scientific evidence together and it sounds like an environmentalist on acid trying to scare small children. Cyanotoxins do cause liver cancer, ALS, altzheimers, and Parkinsons. They are Florida’s Flint Michigan and state officials are too terrified to deal with them.
But the coastal estuaries are just collateral damage. We make a lot of noise, but we don’t have that many votes.
Miami’s water supply is a different story.
Approximately 330 million gallons a day are withdrawn from the Biscayne Aquifer and treated and distributed for water supply.
That serves 2.6 million people throughout Miami-Dade.
One of the more appalling statements I’ve heard about Everglades restoration came from a public official.The chairman of the SFWMD told us that he didn’t know why we worried about Miami’s water supply – “They are on wells!” He headed our water management agency and he seemed not to understand that wells get their water from aquifers.
And what does Miami’s aquifer have to do with sending water south? If we don’t complete the next step in CERP, the Everglades west of Miami will be saltwater instead of fresh all the way to the north side of the Tamiami Trail within 30 years. If we don’t complete the final step to build a reservoir south of the Lake and send water south, Miami is going to lose its freshwater source before it can replace it.
What is happening in the Glades where they meet Florida Bay is this. High storm tides and full moons flood sawgrass with salt. The roots die. Nothing holds the muck and it dissolves. The ground level drops a foot, and salt intrusion leap frogs its way north.
So can’t we just build a desalinization plant? Tampa did when they ran out of water. They get 17 MGD from a plant that cost $425 million. That comes to $8.25 BILLION DOLLARS FOR DADE TO REPLACE IT’S WATER SUPPLY. The feds aren’t going to help. The state isn’t going to help.
So maybe they could use reverse osmosis. They already do at a 10 MGD plant in Hialeah. It will still cost billions. And, either way, what will they do with the reject water which is nasty stuff?
South Florida CANNOT survive without a dependable economical water supply. If we don’t send water south from Lake Okeechobee, that water supply won’t be there.
Add to that the environmental destruction to Everglades National Park and the Water Conservation Areas west of Miami. Muck fires in drought times do not make good neighbors. A dead Everglades would be a stinking albatross around Miami’s neck.
Going on down to Florida Bay NOT moving water south means the ultimate destruction of Florida Bay from hyper-salinity – too much salt water and not enough fresh water. Already the toxic algae blooms there and the documentation of toxins by testing of bottom feeders and crustaceans has caused a knowledgeable researcher to tell me “I will NOT eat anything from the bottom of Florida Bay.”
It should have been a short speech.
Can South Florida survive the loss of the Everglades?
The answer is: