Florida - Part 2: Lake O And The South Florida Water Crisis

"Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man." -- Stewart Udall

As I wrote my last piece, I never expected things to fall so far so fast. Like you, I have watched the countless national news reports on the rapid deterioration of the great treasures of ours in South Florida with shock and dismay.

Clean water sources on both the southeast and southwest coasts of this great state are taking a beating like never before. There is a lot to discuss and this could easily turn into a 10 to 20 part series (and it probably will) on water management in all of South Florida. Let's see how this evolves.

In this piece, I will focus on Lake Okeechobee (Lake O). As billions and billions of gallons of toxic fresh water continue to be released from Lake O into the Caloosahatchee River with its final destination the Gulf of Mex, that is only part of the story. The Gulf of Mex is subject to daily indignities from a host of other sources that have been building over the years. Needless to say, this narrative needs to change.
The same can be said for the discharges taking place that are being sent to the east coast via the St. Lucie Estuary. The pictures tell the story.

Lake O is the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida and the seventh largest freshwater lake in the USA. It's a bounty of nature.....or at least it was. As the population (and industry) around the lake has grown, so too have the epic natural and man-made disasters.

Major hurricanes in the 19th century led to the creation of the Okeechobee Flood Control District to help manage loss of life and property loss around Lake O. The Army Corps of Engineers was then assigned to assist in this effort, constructing channels, gates and levees of all kinds. From these efforts, a waterway connection between Ft. Myers and Stuart became a reality via Lake O.

Fast forward to the 21st century. This once fragile ecosystem we know as Lake O has been breaking down and the last few weeks we have seen that taken to new lows with the water releases to both coasts.

Dredging projects in Lake O over the last few years that have taught us a few things, too. The once pristine sandy bottom of Lake O is now a murky mix of toxic mud. As much as we have tried to keep the integrity of the ecosystem in place, we have not been able to keep up with agri business and real estate development. The mud bottom in Lake O contains elevated levels of arsenic and other pesticides. And that's just the start of it. According to tests from the South Florida Water Management District, arsenic levels on the northern part of the lake bed are as much as four times the limit for residential land. Independent tests found the mud too polluted for use on agricultural or commercial lands, and therefore difficult to dispose of on land. So there it sits, ready to be released into South Florida communities or the Everglades.

Since 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers has been forced to pump billions of gallons of this water out of the lake to avoid jeopardizing the integrity of the Hoover dike that is holding back the water from inundating the surrounding populated area. Some claim that sugar plantations have been pumping polluted water from their flooded fields into the lake, but US Sugar claims back pumping is only to avoid flooding of communities, never to protect farm land. We will cover that in future columns.

In March 2015, the discharge rate was 2 billion gallons daily targeting Southeast and Southwest Florida. Keep in mind this is drinking water for tens of thousands, too.

As the population has grown exponentially on both coasts, the results of what we have been witnessing the last few weeks should be no surprise. Toxic discharge and population centers are never a good combination. There have been these sort of flare-ups a few times over the last few years, but nothing like what we are seeing today. Somebody somewhere knew this was coming, but it took an event like this on both the Southwest and Southeast coasts to wake people up.

Tourists going home with infections of all kinds. Locals getting sick from the water and ending up in the hospital. Fish kills. Unthinkable algae blooms. "Rivers of death" in the Gulf. The health and welfare of our neighbors and visitors are hanging in the balance in so many ways.....recreation, sea life, seafood consumption and on and on.

What do our elected leaders think is going to happen to the tourism industry and real estate values? How about other community leaders stepping up?

It's now taking a grassroots effort to initiate much-needed change. A singular effort from one man holding vigil on a bridge in Ft. Myers, FL dedicating 90 straight days highlighting this madness has taken root and is now called the SWFL Clean Water Movement. A community of like-minded individuals has coalesced around his work and a Facebook community was born.

One quote over the last few weeks kinda tells the tale. This was from a local leader on the Southwest coast. "All of this comes and goes." With all due respect, we are way beyond that point. As the "line of death" in the Gulf gets larger and more pronounced coupled with the with the relentless algae blooms in the east, it's time to act.

If you are in Florida, and can make it, there is a gathering that will take place on the Ft. Myer's, Florida pier to shine the light on these issues. This Saturday, July 9 at 5 pm.

Water is the lifeblood of Florida and it should be treated as such moving forward. No more taking it for granted. Get up... stand up...

Special thanks to the Environmental News Network, WINK News, The New York Times and WZVN for their coverage and SWFL Clean Water Movement.