Story by Ted Williams
Photographs by Marjorie Shropshire
After heavy rains last winter the Army Corps of Engineers protected cattle ranchers, dairy farmers and sugarcane growers in Lake Okeechobee’s watershed by dumping their polluted water on distant residents of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The massive, nutrient-laden torrent was vented east down the Saint Lucie River toward Stuart and west through the Caloosahatchee River toward Fort Myers and Sanibel Island.
Atypical only in severity, the diversion added to the ongoing devastation of two sprawling estuaries vital to fish, shellfish, corals, birds and marine mammals. This time at least 161 cities suffered, many blighted by blooms of toxic cyanobacteria (misleadingly called “blue-green algae”) that kills aquatic life as it nears salt water. Victims include fish like tarpon that push through the floating poison to breathe air and ecosystem-supporting baitfish like toadfish, gobies, pilchards, pinfish, mullet, silversides and anchovies that can’t quickly vacate poisoned areas. What’s more, the regular slugs of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee have killed seagrass, free-ranging shellfish and oysters that filter out pollutants and provide food and habitat for fish. Recovery takes years.
The loss of seagrass has been catastrophic. That was the habitat that supported most life.
Cyanobacteria also creates fumes toxic to humans. Some residents, especially those with small children, had to evacuate their homes. By summer toxic levels near Stuart, located on Florida’s east coast, were 1,700 times the safe-exposure level. A state of emergency existed in Martin County. Swimming, fishing and paddling were banned.
The recreational-fishing industry in the affected area has been devastated. According to Captains for Clean Water, a nonprofit group started by fishing guides Dan Andrews and Chris Wittman, areas that had been paved with oyster bars and lush turtle grass are now biological deserts.
In August Mike Conner, a fly-fishing guide based in Stuart, told me: “I do quite a bit of guiding for snook, tarpon and [spotted sea] trout in the Saint Lucie. When these discharges happen, I have to fish elsewhere. Now I’m sight fishing for snook in the outside surf. We lost our oysters and seagrass. We’ve got dolphins swimming the wrong way. I wouldn’t touch a fish out of the estuary, much less eat one. I’ve been here 20 years and seen six or seven of these events. The one in 2013 was horrible, and this one has far exceeded that. They’ve done a real number on tourism.”
Recently Conner presented an invoice to the Army Corps of Engineers for income he’d lost from dumps of Lake Okeechobee water. Of course, the Corps refused to pay. He then publicized these gross violations of the Clean Water Act on TV and on an environmental website called bullsugar.org.
“It looked like someone poured radiator fluid into the water,” said marine scientist Dr. Grant Gilmore, president of Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc. “It’s happened before, and no one has done anything about it. This has been the worst I’ve seen. The Saint Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon sustain the most diverse fishery in the United States, and it’s getting pounded by the lake. I can go to the middle of Saint Lucie Inlet, draw a 10-mile circle, and I’ll have 800 species—everything from largemouth bass to red drum to billfish.”
The Florida Peninsula runs north and south, so temperate fish come down and tropical fish come up. Bonefish, for example, mingle with striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon. Gilmore has discovered and named new species; and he’s trying to get others, like the opossum pipefish, protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The Corps finished ‘improving’ the lake’s main water source, the Kissimmee River, by slicing out its meanders and converting it to a lifeless ditch so that its water, polluted by the beef and dairy industries, shot unsettled and unfiltered into the lake.
“The loss of seagrass has been catastrophic,” Gilmore continued. “That was the habitat that supported most life. Then there’s this group of fish that need fresh water. We have five species of snook: common snook—the largest—swordspine snook, tarpon snook, large-scale fat snook and small-scale fat snook. The four smaller ones need fresh water for most of their life cycles, then they migrate to the mouths of rivers to spawn. So with major deterioration of fresh water, they’re in big trouble.”
The hydrological “improvements” that allow the Corps to dump pollution generated by residents of the Lake Okeechobee watershed on residents of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts started with the 30-foot-high, 143-mile-long Hoover Dike, which girdles the lake and was completed by the Corps in 1967. It desiccated a huge portion of the Everglades, attracting an invasion by the sugarcane industry—the main factor in reducing the Everglades footprint by 50 percent. To protect that industry, the Corps gutterized the Saint Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, turning them into drainage canals to vent Okeechobee’s water east and west. Whenever the lake floods, the Corps flushes it like a toilet.
Four years after completion of the Hoover Dike, the Corps finished “improving” the lake’s main water source, the Kissimmee River, by slicing out its meanders and converting it to a lifeless ditch so that its water, polluted by the beef and dairy industries, shot unsettled and unfiltered into the lake.
Before this replumbing, rainwater collected in aquifers and wetlands that filtered out sediments, sucked up phosphorus and nitrogen, and gradually recharged the Kissimmee. Then the winding, unimproved river and its flourishing pickerelweed and sawgrass continued the cleansing process. Soft, sweet water flowed into the lake, Everglades and, finally, Florida Bay.
Okeechobee’s natural exhalations were as beneficial as its inhalations, because neither lasted long. In dry years organic muck decomposed, burned and blew away. When shallows flooded, there was an explosion of native vegetation and insect larvae that provided cover and food for fish, frogs, turtles, salamanders, alligators and birds. When the insects exited their larval skins and took wing, the storm of protein recharged songbirds exhausted by spring and fall migrations.
In 2011 Everglades Foundation board member Gary Lickle flew me over the remains of the Kissimmee River in his 900-pound Carbon Cub floatplane. I was sickened to see how the 103-mile river had been forced into a 50-mile straightjacket that destroyed its fish, wildlife, wetlands and magic—even the magic of the name. (The Corps had renamed the Kissimmee “C-38.”) This “improvement” cost taxpayers $35 million.
But as we flew north, some of the natural river reappeared and with it wetlands, fish, alligators, frogs, turtles and birds. Sitting directly behind Lickle, I apprehensively controlled the tiny plane with a single stick protruding between my knees. We were so low we could see much of the new life.
This was the result of still more Corps work. Having seen what C-38 did to the lake and estuaries, Congress hired the Corps to undo a bit of its previous work by reinserting some of the river’s meanders. The partial fix, which supposedly will be finished in 2019, will cost taxpayers $1 billion. Only 44 miles of the original 103-mile channel will be restored, because there are too many new floodplain residents to the south; and to the north Disney World wants to be able to dump floodwater quickly.
Over Lake Okeechobee we saw long, brown swaths—dead cattails herbicided by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. While cattails are native, they become invasive when phosphorus concentrations regularly exceed 20 parts per billion. Upstream pollution, combined with the Kissimmee’s compromised filtering capacity, sends about 450 tons of phosphorus into the lake each year (three times higher than the goal); so cattails and other nutrient-loving plants are reducing biodiversity there and in the Everglades. We flew so low I could see fish, turtles, birds and alligators—even the rouge stains of exotic apple-snail eggs on plant stems.
Ten years earlier I’d found the lake in ecological squalor, whipped up by hurricanes and so dirty that when I inserted my hand, it disappeared from sight. Midges and shad, two of the most important food-chain foundations, were essentially gone. Midge larvae had dropped from around 10,000 per square meter to two (not 2,000—two). With scant light penetration, plankton had died out and with it planktivorous shad and the crappie fishery. Gone, too, were bulrushes and other important aquatic vegetation.
At this writing the lake is in relatively good shape. “The low water you saw in 2011 has allowed vegetation to respond,” said state fisheries biologist Don Fox. “High water is OK if you have moderate or low levels now and then. Midges, shad and bulrushes are recovering. The lake’s not back the way it was in the 1980s, but it’s better. Manatees and snook are coming and going. Good stringers of crappies are being caught. One guy I know went out the other morning and caught 40 bass.”
The estimated annual value of the lake’s recreational fishery is now $225 million. And virtually all fishing is in the marshy western third where phosphorus is less than 10 ppb, like the most pristine sections of the Everglades. Vegetation and bait abound.
But the open two-thirds of the lake sits atop a deep layer of polluted mud; and that’s the water that gets dumped into the Saint Lucie and Caloosahatchee canals. The next big rain event and hurricane will churn up the bottom again, and vegetation will die, the lake fishery will crash and the estuaries will get another dose of poison. (In October Hurricane Matthew remained far enough off the coast that Florida didn’t get enough wind or rain to degrade Lake Okeechobee. A post-storm survey of submerged plants—the ones that get uprooted the worst—revealed no change.)
The replumbed lake devastates Florida Bay, and for the exact opposite reason it devastates the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Instead of dying from too much water, the bay is dying from too little. The Everglades, that “river of grass,” no longer gets a natural flow. And some of the flow it does get is blocked by the Tamiami Trail, a canal and a system of levees.
With little fresh water, the bay now serves as a giant evaporating basin. Warm blankets of very salty water settle into basins. Hot, hypersaline conditions dramatically reduce the water’s capacity to hold dissolved oxygen. Algae clogs and kills the loggerhead sponges that used to filter out pollutants. Seagrass dies, and the decaying process consumes even more dissolved oxygen. Fish kills are routine.
According to Dr. Stephen Davis, a wetlands ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, Florida Bay has lost about 50,000 acres of seagrass, and the die-off is expanding. “On days you couldn’t catch anything you could always catch spotted sea trout,” he said. “Now you can’t even catch them.”
Florida Bay used to offer some of the Sunshine State’s finest sight fishing for redfish, but with the seagrass die-off that’s mostly over. Peter Frezza, a light-tackle fishing guide and Audubon biologist, still chases redfish but over sterile, sand bottom. According to Frezza: “You can see huge schools. That’s exciting; but you might only get one shot. With no cover, they’ve gotten real sensitive. It’s a lot harder to fish them now than when we were targeting singles, doubles or triples. When you spook a school, they’re gone; and they don’t settle back down.”
Whenever fish turn belly up in Florida Bay or cyanobacteria poisons the estuaries, the public and politicians scream for a quick fix. There’s only one fix, however, and it’s not quick. It’s the 30-year, $10 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. We’re 16 years into it, and there have been major delays.
The plan entails huge reservoirs and storm-water treatment areas (STAs) completed north and south of the lake. Two of the northern STAs don’t work, and the third is on trial. In the agricultural area south of the lake there’s been modest progress. Six STAs covering 57,000 acres have reduced phosphorus to between 15 and 20 ppb, but to preserve the ecological health of the Everglades, phosphorus needs to get down to 10 ppb.
Many of the delays have been created by Florida’s Tea Party governor, Rick Scott, who has consistently undercut Everglades recovery—diverting funds, slashing the budget and staff of the South Florida Water Management District, and packing the District and his administration with developers, agribusiness entrepreneurs and other political hacks. Last year the governing board of the destitute District voted not to lower the millage rate (part of property taxes allocated to it). A week later Scott fired the District’s director. And Scott dropped the option for a long-planned purchase of 46,000 acres of agricultural land south of the lake for additional storm-water storage and treatment.
When cyanobacteria poisoned the two estuaries, Scott asked the federal government for disaster relief—this after he had served his sugar-industry funders by fighting all federal efforts to regulate phosphorus and nitrogen. At the same time he accused the feds of causing the devastation along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts by not strengthening the Hoover Dike.
Here’s how Scott appointees operate. In July, purely as a publicity stunt to convince Floridians that it was striving to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges, the District cut water outflow from upstream Lake Kissimmee, filling it to near capacity. This only reduced the daily flow to Lake Okeechobee by 1/25″, assuming the water even got there. More likely it all evaporated or percolated out.
As a result, trees in the river’s floodplain were left on bare ground, and eggs and nestlings of endangered snail kites became vulnerable to raccoons and rat snakes. So the US Fish and Wildlife Service was legally compelled to write a polite letter to the District asking it to discuss options so that it might avoid violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Ignoring the invitation, District director Peter Antonacci seized the opportunity to attack the ESA (loathed by the Scott administration) and to strut and beat his chest about how, in the face of federal bullying, the District would bravely protect the public. In an open letter to senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio entitled “The Endangered Species Act v. Common Sense,” Antonacci wrote: “The USFWS is forcibly standing behind the ESA in an attempt to block the District’s emergency operational actions . . . . For our part, we’ll continue to protect our citizens and take our chances with a federal judge if and when these tin-eared bureaucrats haul us off to court. . . . As long as the ESA continues to exist in its current form, entire communities will suffer as misguided federal employees seek to enforce restrictions that defy common sense.” Naturally, Rubio ran with it.
In February fish kills in the northern part of the Saint Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon were especially spectacular, but these resulted from local septic, urban and lawn runoff, not Lake Okeechobee discharge. An element of the public doesn’t grasp that, and the District is feeding the confusion by alleging that “the nutrients and freshwater that can fuel growth of naturally occurring [cyanobacteria] also comes from local stormwater runoff and septic tanks.” But deadly cyanobacteria blooms have happened only when the Corps has vented Okeechobee water.
Although there’s no quick fix for South Florida, the future is far from hopeless. In 2014 Florida voters approved a ballot initiative (Amendment 1) to set aside major funding for land conservation, including Everglades restoration. With no objection from the Governor’s office, the legislature absconded with the funds. But the fight is on for proper allocation in the future.
The fight is also on for a deep reservoir south of the lake and wells around the perimeter that will store floodwater. A one-mile-long bridge has just been completed over the Tamiami Trail to increase water flow to Florida Bay. And a 2.6-mile-long bridge is in the works.
Restoration is expensive, but a study by the Everglades Foundation reveals that for every dollar invested there is a $4 return. “We know recovery is costly, but we also know the economics of it makes sense,” said Dr. Davis. “There is no silver bullet. Let’s finish the plan.”
I felt a little better about South Florida’s future when I clicked onto the “Now or Neverglades” website (gladesdeclaration.org) and added my name to a pledge signed by much of the environmental community and about every fishing-tackle business I’ve heard of. It reads: “I support the 200-plus Everglades scientists who believe that increased storage, treatment and conveyance of water south of Lake Okeechobee is essential to stop the damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries; to restore the flow of clean, fresh water to Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys; to improve the health of Lake Okeechobee; and to protect the drinking water for 8 million Floridians living in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Using Amendment 1 and other funds, we must identify and secure land south of the lake without delay, before development in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) or other uncertainties condemn our waters to irrevocable destruction.”
Rarely is it possible to repair the disasters we create when we attempt to remake natural systems to our liking. Luckily the mess we’ve made out of South Florida is an exception.