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Water Management Scandals Facing South Florida.

Water Management Scandals Facing South Florida.
Water Management Scandals Facing South Florida.

Commentary by Earthjustice attorney David Guest.

A handful of sugar farmers and cattle ranchers have turned Lake Okeechobee into their own private sewer and loaded it with polluted water. Cattle ranchers are dumping excess fertilizer on their fields to produce more feed for their cows. This fertilizer, along with cow manure, washes off the land and eventually ends up in Lake O.

Making matters worse, the South Florida Water Management District keeps the lake levels artificially high at the insistence of sugar farmers who worry that a drought will leave their crops thirsty. In 31 years of record keeping they've never gone dry yet. Because lake levels are kept so artificially high, when it rains, the water district is forced to dump water from the lake in a hurry to avoid flooding of surrounding areas. This artificial excess of thoroughly polluted water is dumped mainly into two canals and rivers flowing east and west to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, ruining many miles of good fishing habitat along the way.

The lake releases totaled an amazing 855 billion gallons in 2005. [ Editor's note: Wonder what that much water looks like? Picture the city of New Orleans under 22 feet of water].

Allowing the lake to overfill also has killed much of the aquatic vegetation growing on the lake bottom, since sunlight can't penetrate the dark muck that fills Lake Okeechobee. In addition, plants around the lake's edges die in the high water. Recently, rain and runoff from Hurricane Wilma, and the subsequent loss of vegetation, has left bass, bluegill and crappie with few places to hide, reproduce, and feed. With no bulrush or eelgrass around the lake's edges to filter fertilizer-laden sediments washing in from neighboring farms, algae blooms explode in the lake making the waters even dirtier. The lake got a little reprieve when a drought, coupled with a manmade drawdown of lake level in 2000-01, allowed drowned aquatic vegetation to regrow. Since then water managers have allowed lake levels to rise steadily, undoing the benefits of the newly created habitat. Water managers had way too much water in the lake in the summer of 2004 when hurricanes Frances and Jeanne drove sloshing waves across the lake, wiping out 50,000 acres of submerged vegetation. Although the rains come from Mother Nature, the fertilizers, pesticides and billions of extra gallons of water pumped or drained into the lake from sugar and cattle farms are manmade problems.

Boca Raton bass pro and TV fishing show host Mike Surman was recently down at Lake O trying to hook some bass in advance of a major tournament scheduled on the lake. He was quoted in a newspaper article, saying the murky waters in Lake O are the “...nastiest water you've ever seen. I've been fishing this lake 25 years and I've never seen it this bad. Never...I'm worried the tournament organizers won't come back here because it's so messed up.” He had to run 30 minutes north from the launch ramp to find water barely clear enough to catch a fish.

The article went on to report that Don Fox, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Okeechobee, said crappie catches are at their lowest level since 1973 when the species was last commercially harvested. Largemouth bass, he said, are doing better, but not much. “We've got two to three years before there's a noticeable decline in the bass fishery,” he said.

The polluted water being dumped from the lake reveals an equally astonishing path of destruction downstream. To the west, down the Caloosahatchee River, you find a waterway that only faintly resembles the meandering stream and incredible saltwater estuary that once existed. Down near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee, at the estuary, the river bottom is bare of oysters and grasses it once fostered, because of the devastating freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee. This damage is brought to you by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along with the South Florida Water Management District in the river where the first tarpon was taken on rod and reel, back in 1885.

The massive algae blooms wrought by this broken system have killed both the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie River, where they suck the oxygen out of the water. The algae eventually dies and leaves a stinky mess that has made many a riverfront homeowner in the estuaries on both coasts wish they had bought somewhere else. The water is also dangerous. The State of Florida posted signs warning the public against any contact with these dangerous overflow waters.

From a fisherman's point of view, things get worse. Seatrout and snook, two of our best gamefish that spawn in these coastal estuaries, are badly hurt. When the estuaries fill with the polluted water coming out of Lake O, the eggs of these fish, which normally float in brackish estuarine water, sink in the fresh water and die on the bottom. That would explain why we're seeing far fewer seatrout around these areas recently. In addition, the fertilized, polluted waters eventually end up mixing with coastal waters where it's believed they fertilize red tide blooms, which have been known to kill all manner of sea life.

Word has gotten out and fewer visitors want to come sample what had been world-class fishing and world-class beaches. In some places dead sealife washes up on the beaches. In other places veterans notice the loss of dolphins, turtles and sea birds that once filled the estuaries. Newcomers may see what they think is still a healthy natural area, unaware of the missing birds, marine mammals and fish. Back at Lake O, tackle shops have closed, many fishing guides have thrown in the towel, and it's looking like the bass fishing tournaments may pull up stakes and move elsewhere.

Lee County Commissioner Bob Janes was quoted in a recent news report saying the area's tourism industry “will never recover if we continue on” without addressing the water pollution being dumped on Lee County from Lake O. Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah says local marine scientists are of the opinion that the destruction of marine habitat and fisheries will take a minimum of ten years to recover in the Fort Myers area.

Considering the huge number of people who are adversely affected by the way Lake O is currently being managed, you could safely say a gross injustice is being thrust upon the people of South Florida, especially those who live and fish on both coasts where the polluted water reaches the sea, as well as those around the lake itself.

Although sugar farmers take irrigation water out of Lake O, the minute it rains and water pools in their sugarcane fields, they drain it off and pump it back uphill into the lake, adding to the lake's pollution and bulging waters.

A small number of people are creating a huge problem for a large number of people. Money talks and the small number of people responsible for all the pollution tend to be quite generous to politicians. The sugar industry has 40 lobbyists working for them in Washington DC, for starters, to make sure South Florida is configured exclusively for sugar farmers.

They had 75 lobbyists working the state capitol when the state last wrestled with their wastewater problem. In addition, Governor Bush appointed a sugar industry official to a Water Management District position, the agency that controls Lake O's water levels and decides when and how much polluted water to dump.

This disastrous situation doesn't have to continue. There are laws on the books that prohibit the cattle ranchers and sugar farmers from polluting rivers and streams, but currently there has been no political will to enforce them.

In the case of cattle ranchers, if they reduced the tons of fertilizer dumped on their fields to only what the plants can absorb, we'd be half way home. Fencing off the streams and rivers to create a buffer zone between cow droppings and the state's waters would be the next helpful thing they could do. All they would need is a nudge from the state and it would be done.

Recently folks on both coasts who have suffered from the discharges are getting mad as never before. This is a sign politicians would be foolish to ignore. You'll hear water officials talk about their 10-year, $10 billion construction plan to solve all the problems they've created. They've been talking this talk for years and the only thing that changes is the price tag gets bigger and the implementation timeline gets further off as the years go by. Even if they executed their plan, it won't help in the short term nor will it prevent large pollution releases into the river during wet years. Water officials say the best thing fishermen can do is to keep their mouths shut and stay out of the way and let their excellent plan take effect. We've heard all that before.

The reason nothing changes is clear: There are wealthy, powerful interests who believe they stand to lose if they are forced to do the right thing and so far, they've successfully resisted correcting their mistakes. Unfortunately it appears that they'll only respond if forced by a court order telling them to obey the law.

Coastal folks and fishermen are now moving to pursue such a court order. There is already a lawsuit against the sugar growers for pumping their polluted water back into Lake O after it rains. Another lawsuit aimed at getting the lethal pollution discharges down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers stopped is in the works. The people responsible for building the current dysfunctional system should take heed. There are a lot of folks unhappy with the environmental damage being done to South Florida and many are ready to stand up to protect the places we grew up in and love deeply.


David Guest is an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which has been involved in a number of actions seeking Everglades reforms.

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