Poor water quality is not only a danger for marine life, but the Southwest Florida economy as well.
That was the message delivered to the island community this week at the Coastal Estuaries in Peril panel at Tween' Waters Inn on Captiva Island. Ray Judah, former Lee County commissioner and current coordinator for the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, moderated the panel to inform the public.
"There is a lot of deception and misinformation, and you're going to get the truth tonight," said Judah Monday night. "So, when you speak to your elected officials you're going to know what you're talking about."
The problem of polluted water releases is complex and nuanced, and the solution isn't as simple as diverting more water to the east coast or making improvements to failing treatment systems. The good news was that panelists presented a number of short- and long-term options to combat the problem.
Greg Rawl, vice-chairman of the Southwest Watershed Council, said this July was one of the wettest seasons on record and, as a result, more water was released from Lake Okeechobee. Daily flows varied throughout the summer, but last Friday they broke 15,000 cubic feet per second.
Not unlike the last wet season in 2005, released water crossed 11,000 acres of lakes and marshes to the 800,000-acre Caloosahatchee River Basin, carrying nitrogen and phosphorous in suspended solids that darkened the water. The result was algae blooms eating nutrients and oxygen, and killing off aquatic life, officials said.
Islanders had been rejoicing the end of the longest red tide period on record, from September to April, but now their concern is water quality. With recent heavy discharges, Rawl said Southwest Florida can expect other algae blooms in the near future. The east coast of Florida, on the other hand, has the advantage of the Gulf Stream, which filters discharges into the ocean.
There are so many nutrient deposits in Lake Okeechobee, said Rawl, that if releases suddenly stopped it would take an estimated 500 years to clear out. And just because a body of polluted water dries up, doesn't mean the pollutants aren't still lurking under the soil.
Jennifer Hecker, manager of Natural Resource Policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the algae are killing marine life. Since last January, the conservancy has documented more than 300 manatee deaths. Humans are also developing respiratory problems and cases of skin rashes have been reported. Scientists are also linking chronic exposure to these pollutants with nervous disorders, she said.
Rae Ann Wessel, director of Natural Resource Policy at the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, said the system of dikes and treatment areas across the state pose a conundrum because they either release too much water or not enough.
"We find it nearly impossible to find that middle ground," she said.
Historically, water from the lake had traveled south into the Everglades before merging with the Gulf of Mexico, but it was unnaturally rerouted east to St. Lucie and west to the Caloosahatchee. Local environmental officials are now asking the federal government to fast track the Central Everglades Planning Project, which would divert water back south and decrease the level of pollutants in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
The diversion of water east and west accommodated the 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area, a majority of which is used by U.S. Sugar. They are now asking that the EAA be reused for fresh water releases under one of two options: Governor Rick Scott declaring a State of Emergency and flooding the EAA agricultural fields, which are insured, or purchase U.S. Sugar-land through a three-year option that expires this October.
Although releases from Lake Okeechobee carry pollutants into Southwest Florida, local water supplies pose a threat as well. Our water shed needs 450,000 acres of storage and current projects only provide 250,000 acres. Completion of the C-43 Reservoir, outside of Alva, would provide additional storage space, but it's just one piece of the puzzle, said Wessel.
Hecker said one of the reasons the state is in this predicament is the lack of measurable and enforceable water quality standards. This includes run-off from major agricultural companies and residential areas.
"Agricultural run-off is a source of nutrient pollution, but also the fertilizer we put on our lawns," said Hecker.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the State of Florida to develop water quality standards in 1998, but they were never finalized. The EPA later stepped in, but current water standards exempt 85 percent of Florida's waters. They don't include intermittent rivers, streams, canals, tidal waters, and others.
Under the current system, taxpayers are responsible for all of the costs of stopping polluted water, said Hecker, rather than the companies that dumped them in the first place. In 1996 a "polluters pay" constitutional amendment was approved by voters, but the Florida Legislature hasn't imposed it, she said.
And what are the costs of polluted water? According to the panelists, 90 percent of the Southwest Florida economy is connected to local water. Besides tourists coming to the beach, tarpon fishing generates $108.6 million, artificial reefs generate $104.2 million, and Lee County has the second highest number of issued saltwater fishing licenses.
Jonathan Tongya, president of the Sanibel-Captiva Kiwanis Club, organized the Save Our Bay Rally near the Sanibel bridge on Saturday, Aug. 24, and said 500 people attended. Many of those protestors are also attending The Sugarland Rally in Clewiston on Sunday, Sept. 1, from noon-3 p.m.