Can We Turn the Tide? Facing up to the Southwest Florida Water Problem
The next step in our quest for better water
Eric Davis has spent his entire life on the Gulf, a fishing guide who followed in the footsteps of his fishing guide father, and when you’ve spent that many years on the water, you know how to read nature’s signs. On this breezy late February morning, Davis does not like what he is seeing.
“Typically this time of year you can see the pelicans diving,” he shouts above motor and wind. He has just crossed from Estero Bay through Big Carlos Pass and turned north toward Sanibel. If there were baitfish, as there ought to be, the pelicans would be feasting. Instead, the big birds float idly nearby.
Davis (left) had recorded other signs of a wounded ecosystem: an empty-bellied redfish; a surge of freakish white foam; and, of course, the muddy hue that had been broadcast on local news and blasted across social media.
“It’s lifeless,” Davis says of the waters.
It’s the lake, he explains.
The quality of Southwest Florida’s beaches, the health of its marine ecosystem, the livelihood of fishing guides like Davis, and even the viability of the region’s tourism and real estate-driven economy are tied to Lake Okeechobee, 70 miles away. When water levels rise above 15.5 feet, the lake puts too much pressure on the aging Herbert Hoover Dike and threatens surrounding residents. The Army Corps of Engineers opens the locks, and the water pours out the sides, east along the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic and west, along the Caloosahatchee to the Gulf. But mostly west. And that’s why Davis and his fellow fishing guides are joining a growing chorus of environmentalists, civic leaders and residents from Southwest Florida demanding relief.
“It’s a battle we’ve been facing for a long time. We’re losing it,” Davis says. Between the winter’s cold, its unseasonable rain and now the tarnished water, he’d lost multiple fishing trips in his prime income-generating season.
But the sad truth is this: It may be decades before our region sees any tangible results from the Everglades restoration projects that seek to restore the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee through the River of Grass and lessen the lake’s stranglehold on Southwest Florida. And even if all of the state and federal projects on the books are completed, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries will only see partial relief, one major study warns. To really disentangle those rivers from the lake, the state needs land—tons of it—upon which to store water that otherwise gets sent our way, researchers concluded.
“The reality is we just don’t have anywhere else to put the water,” says Dr. Tom Frazer, one of the study’s authors and the director of the University of Florida’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project is the largest environmental restoration project in the nation’s history. We delve into this year’s crisis, prompted by the winter’s historic rainfall, seek to understand how we ended up in this mess, look for a few reasons for hope and explore the many questions our residents are demanding to be answered—including the one about why the state recently walked away from an opportunity to buy U.S. Sugar lands south of the lake.
We’re going to try to make this mess as simple as possible to understand. By the time we’re done, we hope, you’ll start to see the enormous implications of turn-of-the century decisions.
Let’s start there.
Once upon a time, south Florida was comprised of an ecosystem unlike any other in the world, the 11,000-square-mile Everglades. Nature knew how to handle rainwater: Water from the Orlando area would trickle south, pass through Lake Okeechobee, flow through the grasslands (which purified it) and then ultimately discharge into Florida Bay.
And then we showed up.
Around the time of statehood, our forbearers looked at the “swampland” and saw dollar signs in the form of towns and farms and roadways. But they’d have to drain it first.
The first canals were dug, some 225 miles of them. Agriculture boomed. But once we started manipulating nature, it was hard to stop. For several decades, engineers ripped up natural water systems and installed manmade ones. Today, our water management system comprises 2,100 miles of canals; 2,000 miles of levees; 1,200 water control structures; 71 pump stations; 959,000 acres of water conservation areas; 57,000 acres of manmade marshes to treat storm water.
The Caloosahatchee River, which once started around LaBelle, was dynamited, dredged and expanded to connect to Lake Okeechobee. It was widened and straightened, too. That’s an important detail: A meandering river is a slower-moving river. If the fresh water moved more slowly, it would (a) have time to filter through shoreline plants that suck up pollutants and (b) give our saltwater-based plants and animals an opportunity to adjust to freshwater influxes. It’s the difference between plunging or tip-toeing into an icy pool. Neither is pleasant, but your body will be happier with a gentler approach. Not to mention that a slower-moving river doesn’t wash away oyster beds and fish larvae and the little critters that our big fish like to eat.
The same thing happened to the Kissimmee. It was widened and straightened so that runoff from north of the lake gushed straight into it, like a faucet on full blast. In fact, water flows into the lake six times faster than water managers can drain it out.
The Caloosahatchee is the discharge pipe of greatest capacity and least resistance. It was engineered that way.
Even with an expanding canal system, Okeechobee was prone to flooding. The hurricane of 1928 struck central Florida and killed some 2,000 lake-area residents. The Herbert Hoover Dike was erected. It has protected lives, but it wasn’t particularly well-made. Now it is 80 years old, and concerns about the dike are a major driver in determining when to drain the lake.
The final big insult: We built a road. Admittedly, the Tamiami Trail is an important road. But as constructed, it became one big dam. The land north of the trail is drowning; the land south of it, Everglades National Park, is parched. Why this matters to Southwest Floridians? Because, again, we’re stuck with Lake O’s excess. Water literally can’t move south to the park—at least not in quantities anywhere near what the Caloosahatchee takes.
In 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project. The project seeks to undo much of what we did—including putting the twists and turns back in the Kissimmee and raising up the Tamiami Trail so that water can flow underneath. Restoration will cost taxpayers an estimated $17.6 billion—the price of messing with Mother Nature.
Southwest Floridians understand they’re tied to the lake. Every couple of years, though, extreme discharges rattle the region and wreak havoc on the ecosystem. In 2013, an abnormally wet summer resulted in a torrent of fresh water. Residents went ballistic. State lawmakers demanded action. Nothing really changed.
Before that, the region had suffered from a lack of lake water. In this topsy-turvy, human-manipulated system, the Caloosahatchee estuary needs a certain flow of freshwater to keep salinity levels in check. Otherwise underwater life gets choked by too much salt and the aquatic food chain gets messed up.
Freak rains, driven by an El Nino weather cycle, dumped 16.22 inches of rain this past January on south Florida—570 percent of average—right smack in the middle of tourist season. Water managers pumped water off Okeechobee-area fields and towns, into the swelling lake, and in turn down the rivers. By February, fish had stopped biting. Visitors complained. Lee County’s mayors and a commissioner hurried to Washington to lobby for relief. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Congressman Curt Clawson showed up in Fort Myers. And the fishing captains started speaking out about the steady erosion of their multimillion-dollar industry.
“People talk about this being a 100-year event,” Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda said during the impromptu meeting with Nelson and Clawson in late February. “For me, it is a lifetime event. I look at this water, I stand on the pier of my island, my town, and I get chills because there is something different about this.”
Southwest Floridians for years have complained that agricultural interests have drowned out coastal concerns. But when water policy messes with the tourism industry, the people in power take heed.
“It is killing my town,” Cereceda warned.
This whole big mess comes down to one big question: Where do you put the water?
“The reality is the Everglades is half the size it was before and we have the same amount of water and less places to put it,” says Frazer of UF.
The state needs tremendous amounts of water storage if the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries are ever going to really see relief: 400,000 acre feet in the Caloosahatchee River Basin; 200,000 acre feet in the St. Lucie basin; and a 1 million acre feet north and south of the lake, according to the South Florida Water Management District. Other estimates are even higher. An acre-foot is 1 acre of land covered with a foot of water.
The demonized lake is only part of our problem. Roughly 80 percent of excess freshwater is runoff from our river basin, which starts in Glades and encompasses 14,000 square miles from there to the Gulf. Rain doesn’t sink into the ground or feed into waterways the way nature had designed anymore, not with our parking lots, roadways, manmade canals and drainage systems. If you want nice beaches and good fishing grounds, then you need to worry about runoff. Storm water picks up fertilizers and other wastes on its journey to the sea. That’s why water storage—and the related treatment projects to purify it—are essential.
The costs, however, are staggering. One reservoir alone is projected at nearly $586 million.
We’ll acknowledge the challenge in securing funds. However, we’ll also point out that Everglades restoration is Exhibit A in the slog of government bureaucracy.
That one reservoir mentioned? That’s the C-43 project in Hendry County, the only large-scale storage effort underway in our area (it’ll provide 170,000 acre feet worth of water storage when complete, some four years from now). The state bought the land way back in the 1990s, design plans were ready to go in 2008, but Congress didn’t sign off on it until 2014. The reason? The only time water projects involving federal resources can be approved is in massive Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bills that cover an entire nation’s worth of needs. They’re supposed to be passed every two years. We’ve had two in 15 years. The next one goes before the Senate this summer. It includes a slate of Everglades projects that the Army Corps didn’t have ready in time for the 2014 bill.
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane (left) grabs a piece of scrap paper and starts scribbling.
“Can I store more water here? Can I store more water there? Can I get more water off the lake so the estuaries don’t lose?” he asks.
Ruane has been leading Lee County's six municipalities on water-related issues, and he’s pushing county and state officials to consider immediate solutions to Southwest Florida’s hurt. Is Lee County taking advantage of its conservation lands for storage? Can the state hold more water north of the lake? And what about Lake O itself? After half a billion dollars worth of repairs, can’t that dike handle a little more?
The short answer at the time of the rainfall, according to Lee County officials and the South Florida Water Management District: No. Everything—from the lakes up near Orlando to local wetlands in Fort Myers—was full or didn’t have the capability to suck more water from places where it shouldn’t be.
“The amount you would be able to hold on those lands is very small in comparison to what we’re getting in discharges. We don’t have the necessary infrastructure available to do that,” Kurt Harclerode, operations manager for Lee County’s Natural Resources division, says of the county’s conservation lands. You also have to worry about flooding other areas if you start rearranging drainage and storage patterns—making the whole question a lot more complicated than people imagine, Harclerode says. That’s not to say the county isn’t looking or hasn’t created storage and treatment opportunities where viable.
As for storage at the lake, don’t bank on it. If Okeechobee gets too full, plants and wildlife start dying and you’re merely messing up another ecosystem. To the question of tweaking the maximum capacity or exploring new thresholds for discharges, the Army Corps is still several years away from evaluating those questions, spokesman John Campbell says. The dike, he says, is only as strong as its weakest point. Of the 143-mile structure, the Corps has reinforced around 22 miles of the seepage barrier. An estimated 30 more miles need the barrier installed. And that’s just one element of the project.
“Everything we are doing is reducing risk, but we are not at the point of making changes in the water management plan,” Campbell says.
Ruane, though, likes to push—especially at the local level, where leaders have the best shot of enacting change. Maybe places like the Bob Janes Preserve in east Lee County aren’t ready to hold water today, but could they be readied for the next Lake O crisis?
Because we know it’s only a matter of time.
“The main thing we’re pushing for is land acquisition to move the water south,” Andrews says one afternoon following his return to Fort Myers. “Right now, the issue is that only a minute amount of water can be moved down.”
If there’s a rallying cry from Southwest Florida, it’s “Move the water south!”
Let’s be clear: To fix the ’Glades, you need projects big and small spanning 16 counties. But restoring nature’s intended southern flow corrects much of mankind’s mess—from quenching a thirsty Everglades National Park to tapering the too-high salinity of Florida Bay to, yes, lessening the reliance on the Caloosahatchee.
“The highest priority is south of the lake,” says Rae Ann Wessel, the natural resource policy director for Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.
So why did the state last year walk away from an opportunity to buy land from U.S. Sugar?
In 2008 under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the state struck a deal with U.S. Sugar to buy out the company, which holds much of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) below Okeechobee.
It was believed the purchase would pave the way for an eventual reservoir for water storage and agricultural use, instead of relying on the lake for both. And it would help that ultimate goal—to re-establish the southward flow. The company president called the agreement a “watershed event in national conservation history” in a statement released at the time.
The state purchased its first parcel, 26,800 acres, in 2010. The option to buy the second, 46,800 acres for some $700 million, came due last year. State officials walked away.
Environmentalists still are shaking their heads.
“The EAA is the missing piece of the puzzle,” says Jennifer Hecker, natural resource policy director at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
“If there were a priority that would serve the most stakeholders and truly provide a sustainable solution, it’d be getting that storage in the EAA,” Wessel concurs.
There’s the conspiracy theory: That deep-pocketed U.S. Sugar changed its mind and pressured the state to back down. Clawson sought to squelch the U.S. Sugar-as-the-devil sentiment, saying their executives are merely looking after their business interests.
Then there’s the financial explanation: That the state is so mired in other restoration efforts that buying sugar land seemed a diversion from stuff already in the works.
“Our board took a look at it and it was just not a viable project,” says Philip Flood, the intergovernmental representative for the South Florida Water Management District.
The agreement gave U.S. Sugar 20 years to lease back the land while the company shifted into a new line of work. That’s a long time to wait. Meanwhile, the state is engaged in 40 major restoration projects—including picking up the initial tab for the reservoir in Hendry County because the feds still haven’t appropriated money for it.
“We have a limited amount of dollars we can work with. These are our priorities,” Flood says, pointing to a long list of state-backed projects underway.
Not everyone’s buying the argument, including Clawson and Nelson.
“The money,” Nelson says firmly, “is there.”
He’s talking about Amendment 1, the voter directive that requires the state to commit documentary stamp tax money to conservation. A lawsuit has been filed alleging the state used the funds for salaries and other operational needs rather than land acquisition. The state maintains the amendment was broad enough to cover a range of allowable uses. “You need people to do the improvements,” notes state Rep. Matt Caldwell.
“The amendment said the money is to be used to buy lands,” he said during his visit to Fort Myers.
Clawson went one step further.
“If the state doesn’t want to buy land to move water south, and we have a respectful disagreement there, then we’re going to have the feds do it.”
That’s a pretty bold move for a Tea Party conservative (and Clawson admits it’s a pretty long shot). But he maintained: “Our No. 1 issue is our water and our environment. Our economy depends on it, and it is the right thing to do by God’s creatures and God’s creation.”
Chris Davison, general manager of the Island Inn on Sanibel
There are other complications that make the whole “Move it south!” outcry a very challenging endeavor. Let’s draw a quick map for clarity:
South of the lake is the EAA. South of that are three big water conservation areas (WCAs) and six storm water treatment areas, essentially manmade marshes where swamp-loving plants suck out the pollutants that fresh water picks up over land. South of the WCAs is the Tamiami Trail. South of the road is Everglades National Park.
Now, a primer on the make-you-want-to-bang-your-head realities of water management:
If the WCAs get too waterlogged (i.e. you send too much water south from lake through EAA), you risk drowning the deer, rabbits and other creatures that live on tree islands there. You threaten tribal heritage sites, too, which is why the governor had to issue a special order before the South Florida Water Management District could take the very rare step of raising the water levels over the winter.
Even if furry critters were no object and the conservation areas brimmed, you still can’t drain the water into Everglades National Park. There’s a court order. Water has to be purged of phosphorous, to the level of 10 parts per billion, before federal park managers will allow it through. The manmade filter marshes are extraordinarily effective, but they can only handle so much water at once.
Finally, there’s the matter of the birds. The Cape Sable seaside sparrow, an endangered species, has taken up residency in the park. They nest on the ground. Despite this year’s historic rainfall, two of four drainage canals into Everglades National Park were closed this winter to protect nests.
All of this is why some officials believe we’d be better off, for now anyway, looking north for storage solutions, to the Kissimmee River basin, which dumps water into Lake O. “If we solve it at the source, then we can have flexibility in how we manage the lake,” says Caldwell. Environmental groups counter: Is the state merely delaying the inevitable?
In the meantime, where does this leave us? Watching fresh water gush down the Caloosahatchee where there are no endangered species, no lawsuits, no tribes. Just one straight pipeline to the sea.
Janice Haines of New Jersey arrived at Fort Myers Beach just before January’s rains.
“It was beautiful—crystal clear,” she said of the water then. By the end of her two-week stay, local runoff and Lake O discharges had stained the Gulf. Haines stood on the Fort Myers Beach pier one morning, fishing pole in hand. Her line kept coming up empty.
“It’s made an effect because there are no fish except catfish—and they’ll swim in anything, even muck,” she said.
If you tend to write off tree hugging (or in Southwest Florida’s case, fish loving), then you’d better shift your biases. What happens with the environment has a direct impact on what happens with our water-loving economy.
One 2015 Florida Realtors study found that Lee County home values grew by $541 million when water quality improved.
Scientists at Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Marine Laboratory track salinity and other indicators of water health from their research center on Tarpon Bay.
Dr. Eric Milbrandt, the director, points to graphs gleaned from years worth of data. In 2013, during that major summertime discharge, salinity levels off Sanibel plunged to 15 parts per thousand and lingered there for months. The expected summertime level is between 25 and 30. Conversely, during the 2008 drought when water managers restricted freshwater flow, the Caloosahatchee’s salinity spiked as high as 28 ppt—approaching the level of seawater.
Estuarine life is built for salinity fluctuations, but it can only take the extremes for so long, Milbrandt explains.
“The plants are spending much more time trying to osmoregulate, we call it, getting the salt balance right. It’s like your kidneys. They are spending less time and energy investing in growing,” he says. It’s not likely we’ll wipe out all of our seagrass—the go-to habitat for mollusks, crustaceans and multiple varieties of juvenile fish—but the constant stress could result in a net overall loss.
Hence the fishing guides’ political awakening.
“Our careers are in jeopardy. We just want to know there’s a plan in place for the long term,” Andrews says.
Area business owners are careful in how they talk about the effects of Lake O. They don’t want another BP situation; in 2010, media-driven fears about oil reaching Southwest Florida all but shut down tourism. Nevertheless, they’ll admit they are concerned.
“It seems like things bounce back, but they bounce back short of what they were before,” says Chris Davison, general manager of the Island Inn on Sanibel.
Guests were still coming, Davison said in early February.
“Right now in the months of February and March, it’s still 12 degrees everywhere else. And our demographic of visitors, they are not the jump-in-the ocean types. They enjoy walks on the beach and the other things we have to offer,” he says.
Even so, it’s hard to counter negative comments on TripAdvisor or other consumer-fed sites, and impossible to change a first impression. That’s what worries Cereceda, the Fort Myers Beach mayor.
“They were very, very put off by Fort Myers Beach—the construction, the traffic, the water—all of it,” she says of an email she received from a Rochester, New York, couple. Beach visitors tend to be generational, she explains. She fears her town may have lost the cohort of 2016.
In late February, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency. The state launched an online survey for business owners in Lee, Martin and St. Lucie counties to assess economic losses.
We know what you’re thinking: Southwest Florida is doomed to suffer the consequences of history for a long time to come. Sadly, we have to affirm that. Everglades restoration is projected to take 30 years—if the state and federal governments keep the approval votes moving and the money flowing.
In the meantime, though, there have been some important developments:
Congressman Clawson and Mayor Ruane quietly met with the U.S. Sugar vice presidents Robert Coker and Malcolm “Bubba” Wade several months ago to see if they could rekindle interest in selling to the state.
“We’re looking at all options. That’s my job,” says Ruane, who also serves on an ecosystems task force comprised of local, state and federal appointees working to solve water-related issues. “Congressman Clawson and I owe it to the people to see if there’s an option there.”
Clawson filed legislation to expedite the Herbert Hoover Dike restoration. “We’re saying let’s get the dike done in five years,” he says. Once that happens, the Army Corps can reconsider when and how much water Southwest Florida has to bear.
The Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) goes before Congress as part of that big national water projects bill. To date, restoration projects have skirted the periphery of the ’Glades. CEPP delves into the heart of them and promises to move annually huge quantities of water—enough to cover Manhattan with more than 9 feet—from Lake O south, according to the Army Corps.
And then, Clawson suggests, echoing a local clamor, we need to share the pain. He’s requesting a one-year waiver of the Endangered Species Act to open the remaining canals into Everglades National Park. Sorry, sparrows, but the estuaries have had to shoulder too much for too long.
On a state level, the Legacy Florida bill sailed through the House. It sets aside $200 million a year for Everglades-related projects. Caldwell, one of the cosponsors, says the legislation guarantees a source of restoration funding—and puts pressure on the federal government to fund its share.
Locally, Lee County voters will be asked to reauthorize the Conservation 2020 land acquisition program with a new, targeted focus on water quality. Commissioner Brian Hamman, who is deeply involved in water policy matters, thinks it will pass with the sharpened focus and taxpayer protections that ensure the county doesn’t pay too much for land.
The historic rains have rattled the region and make us worry that the upcoming wet season will only compound the damage. But they may also served as the spark Southwest Floridians needed to push our representatives into expediting progress.
Now, the key is not to let the energy of 2016 fizzle out the way it has in the past, after the immediate crisis ends, the media moves on and the murky water clears. Already, by early March, the Army Corps announced it would slow the discharge rate—good news for the estuary but potentially bad news for maintaining public interest.
“Our water will clear up, and everyone will forget,” says Andrews, the Captains for Clean Water founder. “This is what is happening ... and it’s going to happen again unless a long-term solution comes into play.”