Time for Florida to get its act together.

As seen on Google Earth, Sailfish Flats, near St. Lucie Inlet, was a flourishing seagrass meadow in December 2010, supporting seatrout, mutton snapper, pinfish and countless other species.

During Hurricane Irma, much of Florida was awash in water. Lake Okeechobee was already high, in fact on its way to one of its recent historical highs. Yet sugar cane farmers south of the lake began pumping water from their fields, untreated water, back into Lake O. The discharges to the coasts resumed, as did questions about the integrity of the dike at Lake O, while the sugar industry was adding to the height of the lake.

“Even then, as another major storm, Hurricane Maria, was strengthening and its path was uncertain, possibly coming to Florida,” said Chris Maroney, one of the founders of advocacy group Bullsugar, “they were backpumping. Those sugar growers pretend that they care about the people who live around the lake, but if they did they wouldn’t be pumping back into the Lake during those dangerous times. It’s all about sugar production and yield, and they’ve never had a bad year.”

Now, for the first time in a long while, there’s a chance to change Florida’s destructive water management policies concerning Lake O, the Everglades and estuaries to the east and west, by constructing a new reservoir and water treatment facility as called for by Florida lawmakers earlier this year. It may turn out to be a breakthrough in a decadeslong saga, or yet another chance for change at risk of being squandered.

Recent Google Earth image: Following heavy Lake Okeechobee discharges and algal blooms, the area was denuded of seagrass by early 2017. Without clean water it may never recover.

With public outrage high these last few years and the damages from discharges making national news, advocacy groups such as Bullsugar, Captains for Clean Water, and many other organizations, among them Rivers Coalition Defense Fund, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and The Everglades Foundation, grew much more vocal and influential. Combined with the outrage from citizens in the affected areas—finally, state politicians knew that they had to do something. They passed Senate Bill 10 which legislates the construction of the storage reservoir and water treatment center in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), whose purpose is to alleviate some of the damaging outflows to the coast and to clean water and supply it to the Everglades and Florida Bay in a more natural flow. As the new year’s legislative session is about to begin in January, crucial work to further the EAA reservoir project must be accomplished, on a federal level as well.

Already there have been plenty of signs that Big Sugar, which fought S.B. 10, has been opposing the reservoir. As reported by The Miami Herald in October, U.S. Sugar spent 1.5 million dollars on pre-session legislative hearings to fight the SB 10 development.

“The reason these problems perpetuate is because of the federal government subsidies to the sugar industry, and that industry turns around and invests that windfall profit into the political process,” says Bullsugar’s Maroney. “For instance, all of the storm water treatment areas in the EAA, to clean pollution out of the sugar fields, is paid for by the taxpayers. Sugar doesn’t even even pay for their own cleanup. They invest in lobbyists, politicians and public relations lobbying at every level. That is the reason that this problem is so entrenched.”

Through late 2017, damages continue to mount from the Lake O releases to the coasts and constricted flow to Florida Bay—damages to Florida’s ecology, economy, culture and even the health of its people. There’s growing scientific evidence that cyanobacteria in algae— which can grow and bloom in the discharges—can produce toxins that are threats to human health, including an increased risk of causing cancers and liver disease mortality.

The hope for change hinges on the successful development, planning and implementation of the EAA reservoir as directed by S.B. 10. The amount of acreage for a water treatment flowway to accompany the reservoir needs to be established and arranged for, and there has to be a guarantee that the new storage and treatment system, once it is built, provides benefit to the natural system of Florida. If not, Maroney says with an eye to history, Big Sugar might well hijack the new reservoir system for its own use.

“I would first and foremost thank the fishing industry and community for making this a priority to get fixed,” said Chris Wittman of the grassroots advocacy group Captains for Clean Water. “That’s a huge step toward fixing this issue. This is a problem that’s going to take a significant amount of time to fix. It’s very important for us to continue to get others to become more engaged in this and not get complacent, because the problem still looms. We will see this through over the next five or ten years, because our way of life is at stake, our economy, why we call Florida home, what we want to leave our future generations. It’s all at stake.”

Visions for Florida

In the summer of 2013, the effects of Lake O discharges via the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers closed beaches, wrecked estuaries and shut down recreational fishing opportunities. Stuart resident Chris Maroney and his associates were watching it all. “We saw that it was all part of an intentional water plan that is meant to maximize sugar cane yields in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA),” Maroney recalled. “The problem is political. The real issue is that we have an incorrect prioritization of how we manage our water in South Florida, to the detriment of everyone else. Big Sugar monopolizes all the storage, treatment and flow of the water.”

Determined, Maroney and his colleagues founded Bullsugar in the summer of 2014. “What we’ve done, in addition to getting more people involved, is to get connected with all the other experts who’ve devoted their lives to fixing this problem, and to get us all working together. The Now or Neverglades declaration supports the settled science behind the solution. S.B. 10 could be that solution, if the details are done right.”

The year 2016 saw unusual winter and spring rains. South of Tampa, people speculated that the discharges from Lake O coming out the Caloosahatchee might have forced the tarpon schools to the north more quickly than usual.

Captain Chris Wittman, a native of Ft. Myers, saw the effects of massive discharges in February, a rarity, during tourist season. “Along with a lot of other guides,” he says, “I saw an alarming drop in business, as did hotels with their Northern visitors. Our clients are return visitors, and they book multi-day trips. Meanwhile, their families can enjoy the beaches. They don’t want to spend their hard earned money when the fishing is poor from the freshwater discharges. At the same time, the beaches are ruined with the dark, muddy and often polluted fresh water.

“The discharges pour directly into San Carlos Bay,” Chris explains, “from the mouth of the Caloosahatchee and the southern part of Pine Island Sound, and over into Fort Myers Beach and Estero Bay, and depending on the wind, it can stretch 30, 35 miles north or south.”

Wittman, along with friend and fellow charter captain Daniel Andrew, founded Captains for Clean Water, a grass roots advocacy group which quickly grew in size and strength to become a voice for those who want to see better water quality and better water management policy in Florida.

“We took a unique approach by showing impacts to the economy and quality of life of those affected by the discharges,” said Wittman. “This doesn’t just affect Lee and Martin counties. It affects all of us, including Florida Bay to the south, coral reefs, and Biscayne Bay. We have to solve the water management crisis for all of Floridians.

“Captains for Clean Water was founded to solve this problem once and for all. We work with policymakers to act in the interest of the will of the people of this state. The angling community is the most affected group, and historically they haven’t been involved with the solution. We’re here to change that.”

Wittman points out an important development to the success of S.B. 10 and the fight for change in Florida water management—the growing participation of recreational fishing and outdoor industry partners.

“Now companies such as Mustad Hooks, SeaDeck, Yeti, Orvis, Simms and many others have joined forces with Captains for Clean Water to work towards a solution. The reason we’re starting to see some progress with this issue is because of the engagement of the fishing industry. Once fishermen became engaged, the industry started to get involved, and that’s how this problem will be fixed.”

“At any rate,” emphasizes Karl Wickstrom, founder of Florida Sportsman and a leader of the Rivers Coalition which has been documenting the discharge horrors for more than three decades, “the long fight to save the estuaries is far from over. We have no choice but to double our efforts to stop the polluters in their self-serving tracks.” FS

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