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Aug
1

Editorial 651


Missy Layfield - Editor

Stop The Water Dumping

Anyone who walks along our beach or our pier or fishes in the back bay is aware that our water quality has taken a nose dive since Lake Okeechobee water releases have increased. Our water is brown, nearly black in some places, just like the water that flows out of the Lake. That would be because most of the water flowing down the river is from the lake. We pick up some from the Caloosahatchee drainage basin, but Lake O provides the key polluted water.

The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) treat the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers like drainage ditches during the rainy season. Actually worse than drainage ditches. We suspect that if you were caught dumping water this polluted into a ditch, the Department of Environmental Protection would have something to say about it. But if it’s the USACE doing it, so it’s all good.

Except when it’s not.

Our water, usually a sparkling green/blue, is now brown. And it’s going to stay brown for a while. This week the discharge from the Lake that flows down the Caloosahatchee River and out into the bay and eventually the Gulf, was "maximized” by the USACE to lower the level of Lake O. They threw open all the gates and let ‘er rip. But the polluted water has been flowing for weeks. While the brown water will eventually go away, we can’t predict when. Or what condition our sea life will be in when it does.

With the Hoover Dike failing, we understand why the lake must be kept low. We also understand that the use of the C-43 reservoir will help, a little. What we don’t understand is why the estuaries on both the west and east coasts that are damaged by these releases get so little attention. We also don’t understand why agricultural interests trump environmental interests whether it’s during the rainy season now when we’re drowning in polluted water or during the dry season when our river and estuary are dying of thirst for "fresh” water, but the sugar fields come first.

If anyone in power at USACE or SFWMD cares about the estuaries, they’ve done a truly terrible job of conveying that to the residents on both coasts. Delicate estuary ecosystems are dying and we seem to be the only ones who notice or care.

In the really old days, Lake O water flowed south, feeding the Everglades with freshwater. Enter the corporate farmers who drained the glades around the lake and built fields. The Herbert Hoover Dike was built to protect Lake O communities after thousands died in the 1920’s in hurricanes. That dike is failing now. Has been for years. While the USACE works on replacing the failing sections, Lake O is kept low so as not to strain the dike.

Why is Lake O water so polluted? Lake O is essentially a retention pond for the agricultural industries around it. Lake O water is used for irrigation for the $1.5 billion/year agricultural industry; once the water is no longer needed and it is polluted with nitrogen and phosphorus and all manner of other agricultural chemicals, it is back-pumped into the lake. Water that flows off sugar fields is too polluted to flow into the Everglades, but not, apparently to be pumped back into the lake. When the lake rises, most of that polluted water flows down the Caloosahatchee River to us.

They don’t call it polluted; they call it "nutrient rich.” Nice spin.

The Caloosahatchee becomes essentially a river of death that flows from Lake O into our estuaries, blocking sunlight, dropping salinity and killing off sea grass, oysters, fish hatcheries and countless other forms of sea life.

In this broken water management system, the coastal estuaries are the real victims. Actually, I should phrase this so those whose only concern is JOBS can understand the problem.

Poor water quality costs JOBS.

When our water quality is damaged, our economy suffers. The #1 economic engine in our state and in Lee County is tourism. When you damage that engine, it does not rebound immediately. Our economy is just now recovering from an oil spill that never reached us and a global economic downturn. Tourism is a very sensitive business, easily affected by bad water quality or even the rumors of bad water.

Each new business that arrives in Florida is hailed as a provider of JOBS. Why are those JOBS more important that the ones we already have, that are at risk in our community due to this issue? Why does no one care about the boat captains, the servers, the housekeeping staff -- the many tourism related JOBS that are put at risk when the USACE and SFWMD gamble with our water quality? Lee County Tourism is a $3 billion industry. We count too!

Who is responsible?The USACE manages Lake O water levels. They work with the SFWMD. But it’s politicians who call the shots. Big donors tell politicians what shots to call. Who’re the big donors? Sugar industry companies, executives and employees are often on the big donor lists.

If we want our river, estuary and beach to get a fair shake when water decisions are made, we need to let our representatives know about it. Contact them and tell them that they have to find a way to solve Lake O’s problems that don’t involve ruining our water quality. It’s past time that the agricultural industry was expected to solve the pollution problems they’ve created.

If this matters to you, speak up now.

Missy Layfield