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Warning Bell

Word arrived this week that Governor Rick Scott plans to file a lawsuit in U.S. Supreme Court against the state of Georgia. Georgia has been using so much of the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basins that the quantity and quality of the water reaching Apalachicola Bay is insufficient to maintain the Apalachicola Bay oyster beds. The higher salinity in the bay caused by the low river flow is killing their oyster industry.

I have not been able to get this news out of my head since it came across my desk. Mostly because of the parallels to our own historic, current and future water quality issues here in south Florida. Apalachicola’s problem is too little water. Our estuary suffers every dry season from too little water as the sugar industry gets first dibs on water from Lake O. Then comes rainy season & there’s too much water, so it gets sent to both coasts, drowning the estuaries with polluted "fresh” water.

Scott’s press statement could easily apply to the damage that is happening right now on both coasts as a result of Lake O releases. Let’s try his statement substituting our water issues:

"Florida will bring suit in the U.S. Supreme Court next month to stop (the sugar industry’s) unchecked consumption of water that threatens the existence of (south Florida estuary) fisheries and the future economic development of this region.”

Like that would ever happen.

In Lee County, our normally clear blue/green water is dark brown. The sea grasses that shelter and feed our sea life are dead or dying. Our oyster beds at Iona are dead or dying due to low salinity. There are algae and phytoplankton blooms scattered throughout the Estero estuary. Canals in Cape Coral are covered in duckweed, further blocking light to sea life. Canals on Fort Myers Beach have algae blooms floating on the brown water. Seagrass has been washing up on beaches and floating in canals for weeks, torn from the riverbed by the increased water releases.

On the east coast, the Indian River Lagoon, fed by Lake Okeechobee via the St. Lucie River, is experiencing dolphin, manatee and fish kills. Algae covers the water surface in many areas. Indian River Lagoon tourism, is taking a hit, just as Lee County’s is.

In our own backyard, Lee County tourism employs 1 out of every 5 employees in the county. Tourism brings 5 million visitors to our area each year, where they generate $3 billion, with a B, for our economy. The tourist bed tax alone amounted to $23.1 million last year.

Tourism is a very big business. We have sun and warmth and beaches surrounded by clear water that is home to a wondrous variety of sea life. That water and those beaches have been taken for granted for too long. They are a critical component in visitors’ decision to come to our area.

So, while reading the press release on Apalachicola, I realized that most of the problems that area is having are quite similar to our water problems. The only difference is that Apalachicola can point to another state as the culprit behind their problems. The cause of our problems exists right here in Florida. I doubt Governor Scott is willing to sue our own state, or our sugar industry or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Whoever you blame and there’s plenty to go around, the fact is that Lake O is a mess, the Everglades is a mess, water management in south Florida is a mess. And while everyone is pointing fingers at someone else, the water problem grows worse. This summer, the highest rainfall total since recordkeeping began in 1932 drenched south Florida. Every bad decision, or delayed decision, each compromise with the sugar industry, every delay in building water-holding areas have all come home to roost.

The USACE says there’s nothing that can be done right now to stop or slow the water releases. We believe them. The corner they’ve backed themselves into leave no options. The lake can’t be allowed to rise, there’s no place for the water to go except down the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Rivers.

Yet the problem must be addressed and ALL stakeholders should be heard. Fresh approaches need to be brought to the table.

A favorite method of discounting any environmental concern is to imply that those voicing the concern are extreme environmentalists. They care more for trees, whales and owls than they do for people and business. That will be hard to do when both east and west coast counties are suffering from the economic blow that poor management of Lake O water releases have caused. Tourism is our #1 industry-those jobs MUST be protected from the threat of poor water quality that we are seeing right now.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to a first time visitor to Fort Myers Beach. This father wrote to me recently. Here is what he had to say about our water:

We have been seeking a summer vacation spot that had nice beaches for the kids, so thought we would give Fort Myers Beach a try. Upon arrival we were crestfallen when we rushed outside of the beachfront house we rented to find a reddish brown, hot and unclean looking ocean. We will still have a great summer vacation, but we will not plan on returning to Fort Myers. One always takes the risk of bad weather, but we simply cannot afford to spend our precious few vacation days in a place where the ocean might have the look and feel of a murky lake.

And that is a warning bell. We’ve lost this family. How long can we afford to wait? How many more families can we afford to lose before our tourism industry and the jobs that sustain it are gone?

Missy Layfield