Living in a Selfish Florida World: A Rimbaud Moment

The truth of the matter is that I am having a Rimbaud moment. My torrid affair with South Florida has been reduced to a surreal feeling of guilt. I have been living in a selfish world where the Gulf of Mexico meets real estate meets tourism in an unholy confluence of greed.

The choking sensation of culpability began in the last week of January during a beach run through a graveyard of dead fish, gastropods, and untold millions of rotting micro and macroscopic saltwater organisms. Coughing uncontrollably to the point that retching was the inevitable outcome, I fled from the red tide by trespassing through the closest condominium complex to the relatively clean air of the West Gulf Drive on Sanibel Island. The guilt was as inescapable as truth. As a part time Florida resident, I have been aware for years that the fresh water releases from Lake Okeechobee, courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers and private sugar enterprises, was slowly sucking the lifeblood out of our saltwater estuaries. But the process was occult, subtle and akin to the proverbial frog in the pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil before the unfortunate amphibian realizes it is literally cooked.

Black Water approaching Sanibel Island (Photo: Fran Volkmann)

The horror of it all was compounded with the realization that relief from the toxic soup of freshwater contaminated with organophosphates, nitrates and heavy metals was accomplished by sending the water downstream to ancestral homelands of the dispossessed.

Water is a big issue in recent weeks down here in South Florida. Specifically, there has been historically high rainfall amounts resulting in black water, fish kills and fouled beaches. Lake Okeechobee rose beyond federal protocols, and contaminated waters from Okeechobee were flushed down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie at the maximum level.

More to relieve political pressure from wealthy communities than water pressures, the South Florida Water Management District opened water control gates to move water out of Water Conservation Area 3 and into Northeast Shark River Slough in Everglades National Park. Water that would normally flow to the west and into the western section of the park will now flow east, to Shark Valley Slough -- where alligators have died in recent years due to a lack of water. On the opposite side of this weighted coin, the western portion of what remains of the Everglades' river of grass has had too much water.

This recent rerouting of water may make alligators, tourists, fishermen and property owners in South Florida happy, but the impact of 1,200 cubic feet per second, or over over half a million gallons per minute, will be felt elsewhere. In some instances, the "elsewhere" will be federally recognized and non-recognized Indian lands. Water Conservation Area 3 has been shown to have mercury contamination in some wildlife.

This video explains the problem.

Lake Okeechobee is contaminated with all manner of chemicals and is being used as a reservoir to hold back excess runoff and back-pumping from sugar concerns. When levels get too high, the excess is pumped east and west to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Water is not allowed to flow south naturally as it once did, and what is allowed to flow south is contaminated. Florida Bay is one big dead zone.You can bet on the fact that Hemingway is rolling in the ghostly hull of his fishing boat, Pilar.

The pressure on the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Governor Rick Scott's office was so intense in recent weeks that the beach community of Fort Myers had serious discussions about investing in more tourism advertising to "combat the negative perception that the discolored water is giving our region." Mayor Kevin Ruane of the wealthy beach community of Sanibel Island went so far as to say "our prayers and our voices have been heard," upon learning of the decision to send the black water into the Everglades National Park.

Ruane was referencing a letter from Governor Scott to Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy; effectively redirecting the water southward. What was puzzling was the statement in the letter that indicated approval from the Miccosukee Indians. My secondary reaction was one of the aforementioned shame--shame of belonging to a very selfish community that offers prayers of thanks while our native neighbors would have to bear the brunt of Big Sugar's and agriculture's problems.

On the eastern shores of Florida, fecal contamination associated with record water releases is creating a declared "state of emergency" in St. Lucie County.

Did Florida's Native community really approve of this move to accept more contaminated water?

I reached out to both the Miccosukee and Seminole Nations. Only the Sovereign Seminole Nation responded. I received an education along the way. "The Miccosukee and Seminole are, historically speaking, the same people. In 1957, some Native Americans in Florida formed a political organization called the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Others, wishing to make political decisions separately, formed the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida in 1962. Today, there are also about 100 individuals living in South Florida, especially near the western end of the Tamiami Trail and the lower Gulf Coast, who qualify for membership in either Tribe but also choose to remain separate and sovereign." The federally recognized Miccosukee live on reservation lands with federal boundaries.

Osceola Speaks Through the Seventh Generation

In a phone conversation, Tribal Councilman Leroy Osceola of the Sovereign Seminole expressed surprise about the water releases, since his people were never notified in advance and found out only by accident on the Internet. Osceola is a seventh-generation son of the famed Seminole Chief Osceola.

The "official" Seminole/Miccosukee tribal chair does not communicate with his group, who number around 100."We are almost extinct," Osceola said. The traditionalists live off the land and do not receive federal dollars. They are standing alone, with no federal compensation for decades of environmental insults. The few are being sacrificed for the many.

Watch this emotional video and hear Osceola speak.

The Sovereign Miccosukee Seminole nation maintain their own language, culture and history. They consider themselves truly an indigenous nation.

Osceola explained that the situation is dire and reservation lands are just as threatened, but the non-sovereign status of the "official" tribe means that the federal government dictates what happens on reservation lands. Osceola's people do not eat fish from certain canals because of mercury and other heavy metal contamination. Shark River Slough is one of the principal natural drainages for the freshwater Everglades.

So, why did the Miccosukee reservation people capitulate to the water releases?

In this video, published by the Everglades Trust, all Miccosukee lands are highlighted as threatened by "the polluted water that is running down from sugar and agriculture farms further north, making its way into the Everglades and right onto tribal land."

Are the reservation Miccosukee being strong-armed by the "caretaking" federal government to accept the water heading their way? So far the tribe is silent on the matter.

The genesis of this current crisis rests squarely with Former Governor Jeb Bush and his cozy relationship with Big Sugar. "Swamped," a January 4, 2016 article in the New Yorker details Bush's dismantling of one of the central provisions of Everglades restoration plans.

Florida lawmakers had endorsed a bill to drastically weaken pollution regulations--the result of an extraordinary lobbying blitz by the sugar industry, the largest polluter in the Everglades and one of the largest political donors in the state. Newspaper editorial boards around Florida condemned the proposal as a gift to Big Sugar, the nickname for the major interests in the state: Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar, and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative. In a private meeting room at the Capitol, the congressmen who had summoned Bush said the bill was so egregious that it could threaten federal funding for the restoration. Bush insisted that he would not change his mind.

It's complicated, but all environmental destruction is.

Declines in bird species, vegetation, alligators, and other animals can be blamed on the artificial distribution of water as the culprit in this horror film of environmental malfeasance. "Other examples have been the drowning of tree islands in Water Conservation Area 3A and 2A (continual flooding), drying of the marshes east of Shark Slough (continual low water), and the dramatic decline of seaside sparrows west of Shark Slough (too much flooding)." See this report.

As I look out my window, I see that the Gulf of Mexico is returning to its "normal" blue color. The black water has receded out of view. But somewhere near Shark River Slough an Osceola mother is wondering what to feed her children. It is no longer safe to hunt and gather from the land and the black water slithers like a snake through the river of grass and spits it foul venom into Florida Bay.

It is a Rimbaud moment.