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Editorial 662

Missy Layfield - Editor

Don’t Make Us Liars

With the return of afternoon sunshine, there’s a hopeful air here on the Beach that the rainy season is behind us. Those reliable every-afternoon deluges may be gone, but our water quality issues are still with us.

The Lake Okeechobee water releases continue at 3,000 cfs at Franklin Lock, which reflects both Lake Okeechobee releases and watershed drainage. While 3,000 is not what we’d like to see, it is down from previous summer-time highs after the U.S. Army Corps opened the floodgates for maximum discharges down the Caloosahatchee in July. In August we saw over 7,000 cfs at the S-77 lock at Moore Haven (all Lake O) and over 14,000 at the S-79 Franklin Lock (Lake O + watershed).The bottom line is that the freshwater flow down the Caloosahatchee River has been way too high since June, killing off oysters and seagrass and causing still unknown damage to the life-sustaining seagrass beds in our river, bay and Gulf, turning our water brown and threatening our lifeblood tourism industry.

To learn more about our water quality issues, Islanders are invited to the Floridians for Clean Water rally this Saturday at Crescent Beach Family Park from 12-3pm.

The issues that caused this water-borne disaster are the same ones that existed in June and last year and for the last ten years. Rain in the central part of the state flows into the Kissimmee River, as does agricultural run-off. That flows into Lake Okeechobee. The agricultural industry - including Big Sugar companies around Lake O - use the water and has permission to pump it back into the lake in certain circumstances. When the lake level rises too high as it does during the rainy season, water is released to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.It can’t be released south to the Everglades, which needs water, because it is too polluted. So, the east and west coasts get the water instead. Apparently nothing is too polluted to send to us.

There are primarily two problems: 1. Too much "fresh” water. 2. Polluted water.

While there has been action taken on the state and federal level to move forward with projects to address water quality, most of them address the quantity issue – and look to provide areas to store water. Some projects will address how to remove the pollutants, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus. But few seem to want to address the pollution problems at their sources.

At this point a lot of people want to point the finger of shame at Big Sugar. And that would be very convenient. One monolithic industry to blame for all our water problems.

The truth is, as always, not quite so clear. Sure the farmers who dump tons of nitrogen and phosphorus on farm fields where it flushes into the watershed and lands in Lake O and our river are a big part of the problem.

But there’s more. While we’re busy pointing out how it’s all Big Sugar’s fault, we fail to look for the other half of the pollution equation. Yes, farming contributes about half of the pollutants flowing down our river. The other half comes from other sources ranging from septic tanks to golf courses and water run-off from housing developments with lush green lawns and the phosphorus and nitrogen that made them lush and green.

For a true solution, we need to look at all the sources of pollution in our water and find a way to address all of them, including the agricultural industry.

We’ve noticed that efforts to address the water quality disaster we have in our front and back yards, have begun to look like the childhood game of hot potato. The passing of blame from the feds to the state to industry and around and around has not served the ultimate goal of finding solutions that work very well at all.

We were struck at the Senate Select Hearing in Stuart last month by the minimal mention of the sugar industry. Mostly it seemed in that hearing - and a subsequent one in Tallahassee - that the goal of the State Senators was to place blame on the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers. Their focus was all on quantity of water and if pumping the water into reservoirs helps to filter some of that phosphorus and nitrogen out of it, well, that’s good too.

The Congressional panel in Washington D.C. seemed primarily a platform to showcase how many representatives and senators could say they want to help. We’ll know whether that was for show or not when some solutions come before them for a vote, once they get their act together that is, and we have a functioning government again.

What we really need is for all parties, state, federal, Corps, industry, businesses, environmental groups and citizens to focus on solutions and not blame.

Do not use our struggling estuary as a poker chip in an election campaign.

Our water is still brown, our tourists are concerned about whether it will stay that way. All of us on the beach have told visitors all about how this is a summer problem, when the summer rains end, the water will go back to it’s beautiful blue-green color.

Find the solutions. Don’t make us liars.

Missy Layfield