23 Jun How to Kill an Estuary…. and How to Save It

By Tom Twyford

Watching the evening news a few months ago three items appeared in succession that caught my attention. First, a news report indicated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) would continue discharging billions of gallons of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River for weeks to come. Next up was a related news story highlighting a visit by a tenured politician from Tallahassee who was touring the affected region. These two reports were immediately followed by an advertisement for a new St. Lucie riverfront development featuring beautiful estate homes with scenic views from the $500’s up to $1 million+. I’m certain I was not the only one who saw the irony of that ad appearing when it did. These events have been playing out in south Florida for more than 40 years. The only difference is the volume of water has increased, the politicians are different (but the rhetoric is the same) and regional growth is now reaching a point where many natural systems are being stressed beyond their capacity. Storm water run off and the need to purge Lake Okeechobee every time a significant rainfall event occurs is killing our estuaries.

Florida has a serious plumbing problem. During periods of intense rainfall such as we have experienced with the recent El Nino event, the lake’s water level can rise up to 6 times faster than water can be discharged into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. Massive releases of polluted water flow into our estuaries dropping salinity levels to near zero, smothering seagrass and choking oysters with sediment. Even nearshore reef habitats located outside inlets are not immune from the impacts of these nasty water plumes. By contrast not enough freshwater is flowing though the Everglades into Florida Bay, resulting in hyper-saline conditions that have caused large scale sea grass die offs and algae blooms in the Bay. Fish kills often follow. Vast areas, north, south, east and west of Lake Okeechobee, that once stored and naturally filtered water have been drained to support agriculture and development. Mother Nature’s natural flow-way from the Kissimmee River floodplain, down to Lake Okeechobee, through the Everglades River of Grass and into Florida Bay has been short circuited and forever altered. While some restoration efforts have helped, none have come close to mitigating the effects of such widespread draining of the land.

Estuaries are the cradle of life for hundreds of varieties of fish and marine life. The Indian River Lagoon, home to over 800 varieties of fish, is one of the most biologically diverse estuaries found in America. Snook, tarpon, sea trout, snapper, grouper, stone crabs and spiny lobster to name but a few all depend upon a healthy estuarine system. Sea grass meadows and oyster bars are disappearing at an alarming rate. There will be no fish if there is no habitat to support them. Florida’s reputation as the ‘Fishing Capital of the World’ and the the thousands of jobs that go along with it are at risk.

Despite decades of promises, elected officials (past & present) have in most instances failed to find the political will and the funding necessary to solve this persistent problem. This vicious repetitive cycle and the environmental catastrophe that follows continues to grow, along with the price tag to fix it. The time for studies and more promise filled speeches has long since passed. People are angry and they want action. Land must be acquired (purchased, leased and through conservation easements) to: increase water storage capacity and filtration; protect our aquifer; increase the sheet flow of water south through the Everglades into Florida Bay and; to reduce the massive discharges into our estuaries.

Plans are in place for much of this to happen and those plans are very doable. Here are specific things that should and can be done to save our coastal estuaries…

• Lawmakers must put hundreds of millions of dollars of Amendment 1 money into the Florida Forever land-buying program. They should make good on land acquisition as it was intended by the overwhelming support (75%) of Florida voters in 2014. Before the Great Recession, the Florida Forever program was receiving $300 million annually. That amount should be restored. Amendment 1 will generate about $600 million in the coming year and is expected to raise approximately $10 billion over the next two decades. Yet, lawmakers are proposing to spend significantly less on land purchases. Even if the acquired land is not immediately used for water conservation, it gives the state leverage and options on future land swaps for more desirable or strategically located parcels.

• Fund and expeditiously implement the most critical parts of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP). This plan has been decades in the making and provides a sensible path forward. This includes fast tracking the Everglades Agricultural Area water storage project south of Lake Okeechobee (part of the CERP), which is a key component to reduce freshwater discharges to east and west coast estuaries, and will increase water availability for the Everglades and Florida Bay.

• Expand the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area to protect the Kissimmee River flood plain from encroaching development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with other federal and state agencies, have the opportunity to grow the refuge by working with willing sellers and partner agencies to conserve high priority habitat and water resources. Now is the time to purchase additional conservation easements in the Kissimmee River floodplain to ensure this land does not fall victim to development. Expansion of the conservation area will help protect a rural way of life for many Florida ranchers as well.

• Establish a network of sediment traps in major canals that lead from agricultural areas into coastal estuaries. Agricultural interests must take ownership of this material coming off their land. These traps, properly placed and maintained, will help reduce sediment and nutrient loads entering coastal estuaries. Water Management Districts and other government entities should provide incentives and work in partnership with the agricultural community to determine strategic locations for placement and routine maintenance of these traps. The dredged, nutrient rich, sediment could be recycled for use on adjacent farm lands or other practical uses. Experimental sediment traps have already been implemented with success, on a small scale, in the C-51 canal. Some of the dredged material was used by the Florida Department of Transportation for road improvements. Expansion of this underutilized water quality improvement method is warranted.

• The C-51 Reservoir project proposed where the Palm Beach Aggregate’s pits are located needs to be completed. We must quit sending our excess water to tide in the Lake Worth Lagoon. The Reservoir would give managers improved flexibility on how the water is used, such as helping to restore historic flows northward into the Loxahatchee Slough.

• Increase efforts to develop additional Wastewater and Storm Water Treatment Areas (STA) in the urban watershed. Innovative projects like Green Cay and Wakodahatchee in Boynton Beach are shining examples of how wastewater and storm water can be naturally treated before it enters estuaries like the Lake Worth Lagoon. Coastal municipalities throughout South Florida should be encouraged and incentivized to build similar projects. Beyond improving water quality and storm water storage capacity, urban STA’s provide many other community benefits such as recreational uses, educational opportunities and increased wildlife habitat. As more growth occurs, addtional roadways and rooftops will continue to add to the problem. We must find better ways to capture the impending runoff. Urban-based STAs can provide part of the solution.

• Conversion of septic tanks to public be made a priority. Water discharges from Lake O are not the only thing killing our estuaries. The problems associated with septic tanks near coastal water bodies is well documented. Property owners must take ownership of the impact their septic tanks have on water quality. Municipalities and or utility companies could provide some assistance, but everyone should have some skin in the game. Conversion from septic to city sewer can be amortized over a period of years to make the process affordable. The expense is not wasted since connection to a public sewer system generally increases the value of the property for the homeowner. The Village of Islamorada in the Florida Keys recognized the magnitude of this problem and has begun a process by which residents are being connected to public sewer lines.

Solutions, like those listed above have been known for decades. Yes, they are expensive, but what will be the costs if we continue to delay or don’t act? None of the above will be a ‘silver bullet’ that fully protects our estuaries. However, they are significant steps that must be taken to reduce the harmful impacts of massive freshwater discharges, and help mitigate for future releases. People are tired of inaction, political in-fighting, finger pointing, and excuses for not acquiring land for water quality improvement and storage. Conservation lands are essential to accommodating the demands of Florida’s growing population. Flood control will always take precedence over environmental concerns, but we can do a far better job of methodically storing, treating and moving water. Improving and protecting our water quality is an issue that should unite all sectors of Florida’s economy: the recreational and commercial fishing industry, the marine industry, the tourism industry…and yes, even developers and agricultural interests will benefit from a more sustainable approach to water management. It’s time for a different story on the evening news.