May 16, 2011
By Karl Wickstrom
Slow Lake Discharges with 'Zone D Diet'
Let's put Florida on a Zone D diet. Quickly.
A proposed "Zone D diet" for Lake Okeechobee could prevent or substantially lessen discharge damages to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. This management policy would order reduction of the lake height whenever it hits Zone D. Low-volume flows would keep the lake from rising to heights that then require up to 9 billion gallons a day in releases to the rivers, more water that the entire state uses in a 24-hour period.
Here's a diet that would really work to prevent most of the freshwater mudbaths that periodically plague our estuaries and Lake Okeechobee.
Horrendous freshwater discharges send as much as 9 billion (that's billion, not million) gallons of water a day to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers after first drowning out the life system of Lake O.
The outrageous discharges cause untold millions of dollars of socioeconomic damages. And certainly the natural health of the ecology is priceless.
A simple policy directive could bring quick relief.
Engineer Kevin Henderson of the St. Lucie River Initiative reports that what we'll call the Zone D diet would improve Lake O health and lessen discharges to the estuaries.
"Computer models (trial runs by computer) conducted by the water management district itself show that if water were discharged in small amounts whenever the lake is up in Zone D, benefits to both the lake and estuaries are significant," Henderson said.
Zone D in the lake water world refers to a water level of between 13.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level. The heights vary somewhat according to time of year. Zones A, B and C are the higher levels that ultimately cause discharge troubles.
Susan Gray of the South Florida Water Management District confirmed that recent computer modeling has shown the potential protective benefits of making periodic small releases.
It's like living with controlled and manageable bleeding instead of suffering the massive life-threatening hemorrhages that sicken and drive away aquatic and marine life.
The Zone D diet may be thought of as a component of the Safe Level Plan described in an Openers Column in May and unanimously endorsed in principle by the Rivers Coalition in Stuart.
But isn't the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan supposed to eliminate all the discharges and fix all this nonsense?
Correct. The $8 billion system of reservoirs and wetlands enhancements is projected to stop excessive drainage, and there's no doubt among most environmentalists that CERP, including its Indian River Lagoon Plan, can be a major, historic benefit for the state. Go for it.
The full impact of CERP will be realized many years down the pike.
Meantime, better water level management can produce huge benefits this very year, and in years to follow.
Consistent lower-water averages would get us out of a yo-yo syndrome in which we face miserable conditions during heavy-discharge months followed by greatly improved fishing circumstances later on, as detailed this month in an article about Lake Okeechobee.
The Florida Drainage Machine's roots go back more than a half century when the River of Grass south of the lake was destroyed basically as a land reclamation scheme for agriculture and development. (There was an element of flood protection, but that could have been accomplished without sucking away the River of Grass.)
Drainage seemed like a neat, progressive idea at the time, an idea that bloomed with new fervor as a handful of Cuban sugar barons exiled to Florida in 1960 and teamed with influential Floridians to create the EAA sugar fields that then slowly but surely destroyed the soggy but vital marshes.
It was claimed that Florida's sugar development would cripple Cuba's sugar economy and drive out Fidel Castro. Support for Big Sugar came from the highest of places, including Florida's top U.S. senator at the time, George Smathers, who was one of the nation's most influential politicians. Little wonder that Smathers earned a chair on Big Sugar's board of directors and enjoyed a mansion at plush Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic.
Big Sugar today retains the political clout that even now blocks quick action to fix lake and estuary woes.
Sugar is our most powerful obfuscator.
It says, among other things, that, hey, those 9 billion gallons that are sent to the estuaries or kept in the lake aren't from our land. It's not our water.
That's true, but only because the water is rushed to tide out of the lake before the water would have naturally gone to the half-million acres where Big Sugar resides. In other words, the artificially created land in the EAA would be well under water in rainy seasons if Mother Nature had her way instead of the area being drained bone dry for the sole benefit of a subsidized and unneeded crop.
Fortunately, the water district folks are taking note of the Safe Level Plan approach. The obfuscations in the name of "water supply" scare talk are being treated with the skepticism they deserve.
Henderson and many other close observers with substantial technical expertise have debunked sugar's elaborate claims that their crops could be threatened by lower-water management in drought years. In truth, sugar's production in tons per acre has been the same or even higher in drought years, as lately as 2001.
Moreover, if there were an unexpected drought of the one year in a hundred variety, the EAA could take some losses just like unsubsidized farmers do everywhere, many buying crop insurance. The point is that the benefits of the lower-water policy would far, far outweigh any problems agriculture might face.
Big Agriculture would much prefer that we focus on the long, long future. That way, short-term profits would not be disturbed.
Obviously, we too must be concerned about the long, long future.
But in the short, short future we can make changes that will benefit the lake and our estuaries right away.
Put the water-fat lake system on the Zone D diet, now.
Florida's Great Diversion
Although many complex factors contributed to Florida's Everglades crisis, none of them compares to the water woes caused by the reclamation scheme creating and perpetuating the Everglades Agricultural Area. In order to keep Big Ag dry, an average two billion gallons of water a day are diverted to the ocean, lowering water tables and threatening supplies.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan hopes to alleviate much of the problem through reservoirs, storage wells and modifications but the effects of these changes are many years off. Subsidized sugar farmers are little affected.
More immediately, the Zone D diet and Safe Level Plan would allow the diverted water to be spread more gradually and to more areas.