When I came to Florida to fish in 2000, I saw sparkling, blue-green water flooding into its lagoons and estuaries and roseate spoonbills roosting in mangroves. Since then dramatic changes have occurred and, as seasoned guides will tell you, there just aren't as many fish left. What happened in 15 years?
For one, massive discharges from Lake Okeechobee regularly course east and west down canals into estuaries at Fort Myers and Stuart. Prolonged, damaging discharges came midyear in 2013. And another just resumed in February. Fresh water incursions, fouled with algae-stimulating contaminants, are primarily to blame for killing the salt water sea grasses and contributing to red tides. Algae and turbid water coat grass and block sunlight — "shading" — from reaching these essential aquatic plants.
Sea grass beds and mangroves stabilize the lagoons and sounds and provide habitat to animal life up and down both coasts. On the Atlantic side, heavily affected areas extend northward from the St. Lucie estuary into the southern end of the Indian River Lagoon. There and in the Fort Myers estuary, manatees, fish (in various stages of development) and benthic (bottom-dwelling) animal life (mollusks, crustaceans and smaller forms) depend on ubiquitous sea grasses for food and for shelter from predators. Sea grass flats represent the base of the food chain for the two most diverse and highly productive ecosystems in the United States.
Lake Okeechobee discharges move vast tonnages of suspended and dissolved agricultural and urban runoff to two estuaries: the mouths of the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers and of the St. Lucie River in Stuart. Discharges, some originating in the Kissimmee basin (Orlando), contain fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide residues contributed by sugarcane, vegetable and turf farms, cattle grazing and the chemicals and nutrients from residential lawns and septic systems. Silt is picked up by the heavy flows that scour canal bottoms during discharges. Later these same materials are deposited as shoals and bars in the quieter waters of the estuaries. They coat and bury sea grass, oyster beds and other sessile aquatic life.
Sugarcane and truck farming along the southern end of Lake Okeechobee into western Palm Beach County contribute the bulk of effluents released to the canal systems. Federally subsidized sugar-cane farming depends on irrigation water from the lake during dry periods. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for maintaining lake levels within a narrow range, releases water whenever rising levels threaten the perimeter levee. During the 1926 and 1928 hurricanes, the former dike collapsed and released floods that took the lives of nearly 3,000 residents in Belle Glade and nearby communities.
South Florida's fish populations have expanded and collapsed several times since the days of Spanish control. In February 1899, a cold wave, like in January 2010, killed snook, trout and other species. That Florida's splendid fishery has recovered from severe declines itself is cause for optimism. Fish populations recovered dramatically following the 1994 commercial netting ban. Afterward, trophy trout and snook were again being caught. But multifaceted problems today seem more serious because of their political roots.
In 2008, U.S. Sugar Corp. reached an agreement with the people of Florida, who in one way or another are affected by the discharges, to purchase 187,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee. It would be swapped for other holdings completing a corridor south into the undeveloped Everglades. Except for 24,000 acres already acquired, the remaining purchases await the approval of the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, and Amendment 1 makes money available for these purposes. With the economy recovering, U.S. Sugar is reluctant to sell land at the agreed price and exerts influence in Tallahassee to stall sale until the option expires in October.
Scott doesn't depend on agribusinesses for re-election. Before him is an opportunity to secure his legacy. By resolving the problem of excess water from Lake Okeechobee, he ameliorates two problems: first, restoring beneficial flows of water south through the Everglades to Florida Bay, and second, eliminating discharges that wreak havoc with two premiere estuaries. The people of Florida would stand up and cheer.
William D. Balgord heads Environmental & Resources Technology Inc. in Fort Pierce and Middleton, Wis. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.