As polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee continues to rush down the Caloosahatchee River, dark dirty water plagues the beaches threatening Southwest Florida's greatest economic engine - tourism. With the word of the poor water conditions spreading, would-be visitors in Southwest Florida are cancelling plans or leaving town early. In fact, a Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce survey shows 90 percent of surveyed hotels say they have had cancellations because of the water, and 70 percent of those asked say some tourists expressed they would never come back.
The ripple effect - our real estate, hotel, restaurant and retail industries, as well as our anglers are being hit hard. The livelihoods of these industry employees are in jeopardy. In addition, releases have killed off juvenile oyster beds and seagrasses which serve as a nursery, feeding and shelter area for marine life including manatees. It's safe to say that Southwest Florida's economy and environmental health are dependent upon fixing the Caloosahatchee water flow issue. So what's the solution?
Florida Gov. Rick Scott's visit to Fort Myers last week to announce that the State is committing $90 million to fund bridging an additional 2.6-mile of the Tamiami Trail to increase water flow into Everglades National Park is encouraging. The Tamiami Trail bridge is a very important step towards redirecting the harmfully high discharges to where it historically flowed south of Lake Okeechobee instead of to the Caloosahatchee. However, it is only a piece of a much larger puzzle of projects and initiatives that are needed to restore the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary.
Some of the other immediate steps that could be taken by the state include:
n Funding and building planned Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan water storage projects before the 2014 rainy season to capture, store and treat excess water.
n Revising current South Florida Water Management District operations to allow additional water storage north of Lake Okeechobee
n Declaring a State of Emergency to send excess water through the private farms that make up the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). These private farms are protected from high waters by man-made canals and structures and have crop insurance, while our public estuaries are being devastated - losing our "crops" of juvenile oysters and seagrasses, for which there is no compensation.
n Finishing the U.S. Sugar land purchase. The window of opportunity to purchase the land from a willing seller and under the three-year price option expires this October. These lands are essential and are the ultimate permanent solution for redirecting the amount of water south to restore the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers as well as the Everglades.
The harmfully high releases of water from Lake Okeechobee are destroying our river and estuary. We encourage and look forward to working with Gov. Scott to immediately take the above additional steps to save the Caloosahatchee, the lifeblood of our regional economy.
The future of Southwest Florida's economy and environment is in our hands. We encourage citizens to become actively involved in this important issue, so it gets the needed attention from lawmakers.
- Jennifer Hecker is director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida