Can We Reverse the Tide?
We might take it for granted, but water is singularly the most important part of life in Southwest Florida. It’s the reason for our existence and our biggest headache. Its abundance brings the bounties of our paradise—from boating and fishing on the Gulf of Mexico to our plentiful produce and citrus.
But the sheer quantities of water in South Florida, combined with our possibly misguided development and agricultural practices, also create the biggest challenges facing our precious ecosystems. We come to Florida to live a fruitful, relaxing life, but the excess of our indulgences are causing a strain on the environment, especially our water.
It might seem melodramatic to call the battle for cleaner water the biggest obstacle facing our region, what with unemployment, a housing crisis and a fragile economy. But those things are part of the ebb and flow of business cycles. With water, the farther we let it slide the more difficult it becomes to bring it back. We’ve already suffered losses that cannot be repaired.
A snippet from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s annual estuaries report card puts thethe problem into stark perspective. “… Florida has some of the nation’s poorest water quality ratings. Over 97 percent of bays and estuaries and over 42 percent of streams in Florida are in poor shape. … Overall, the state is fourth-worst for drinking water quality and 10th in violations of Clean Water Act permits.”
But there are people fighting daily to make sure our water resources will be in better shape for coming generations. And with a little luck, and some governmental support, they believe the tides will turn in their favor.
Battling Mining in the DRGR
For most of the past decade, Don Eslick and his cohorts in the Estero Council of Community Leaders have focused their energies managing an experiment in how unincorporated communities can control development. The group, a sort of self-appointed city council for the community just north of Bonita Springs, had banded together to impose strict design guidelines for commercial construction and fought off attempts by Wal-Mart to put stores in areas of which the community didn’t approve.
The result was a well-oiled machine versed in the intricacies of land-use but often too narrow in its vision. When a small band of residents in the community’s eastern-most reaches came to the council seeking help going up against mining interests in an area set aside by the county for drinking water replenishment, it was a big eye opener, Eslick says.
Estero leaders had been aware of mining operations in the eastern part of the community because of dump truck traffic that barreled down Corkscrew Road. But they weren’t aware of just how much of Lee County’s fresh drinking water came from that same area.
“(The mining opponents) really educated us on this issue,” Eslick says. “Virtually all fresh water, about 80 percent, comes out of about 250 wells in the area.”
An 83,000-acre swath of southeastern Lee was formally established in 1991 as a density-reduction groundwater resource (DRGR) due to the importance of its drinking water wells for the growth of the county. At the time, thanks to large tracts of plotted land in Lehigh Acres and Cape Coral, Lee County had the most developable lots in the state. At build out, some estimates had the county population topping 1.5 million people. Lee commissioners decided the area was crucial to providing for this explosive growth.
But the DRGR also happens to hold one of the largest concentrations of high-grade, mineable limestone in the state, second only to Miami-Dade. The limestone that companies want to extract from the ground is part of what filters pollutants from the drinking water. And the same growth the commissioners were trying to supply clean water to needs the rock for roads and buildings. Plus, there’s money to be made, about $1 million per acre, Eslick says.
“We’re talking about 13,000 acres of land (on which mining has been considered),” he says. “But we don’t need all that capacity.”
He says studies have shown that existing mines already in place have enough capacity to supply the needs of a seven-county area for the next 25 years.
So as mine companies have come before the Lee County commissioners asking to be permitted for new digs, Eslick and his army of volunteers have swarmed to meetings offering hours of testimony against the projects. Separately, the Estero council is working to raise $50,000 to cover legal fees to augment the county’s lawyers when the miners take the battle to court, a tactic that most of the companies have employed. They’ve partnered with several local and national organizations, including the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Audubon Society, to add as much support as they can muster.
So far Lee elected officials have held firm against granting any new mining permits. But because the mining sites are mostly along the Collier border, the companies have been working on opening mines a few miles south. So now Eslick and crew are trying to influence Collier officials with the same shock and awe tactics that have proven successful in their previous battles.
“The first time we went down to speak before (the Collier County commission), we packed the room,” he says. “I don’t think they were used to that kind of participation.”
The next few months will be crucial. A Florida hearing examiner is scheduled to rule soon on whether Lee’s interpretation of the DRGR plan and the limits on mines are legal. If the county and the environmental groups win, it could be years before the mining issue comes back to the forefront. But if they lose, a stream of new mining applications could flood the commission dockets. Either way, the courts will play a big role in deciding. Meanwhile, the wells continue to pump clean water to hundreds of thousands of residents and the aquifers keep recharging.
Old Man River
Lobbyist has become a pretty dirty word lately. So Pete Quasius’ card says he’s an Environmental Policy Advocate for the Collier County Audubon Society. But he’s not shy about the reasons he advocates for change. They are personal.
In the ’90s, Quasius, a longtime charter boat captain, moved from Naples to Fort Myers and a house along the Caloosahatchee River. Sitting in the clubhouse of the Palm River Yacht Club in Fort Myers with a view of the wide channel at the river’s mouth, Quasius remembers fondly fishing for tarpon and snook farther up the river. But about a decade ago, two years of extreme weather caused a shock to the river from which it has yet to recover.
First a wet summer led to rising water levels in Lake Okeechobee. In order to protect the lake’s bass fisheries, the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the lake levels, decided to send a massive amount of water into the Caloosahatchee, dropping the salinity levels and driving many of the game fish back into the Gulf. Then the next year, a drought caused Lake O’s levels to drop precipitously. Instead of sending some water into the river, which needs some discharge from the lake in order to promote water flow, Corps officials closed the locks and kept the water for farming interests.
Under normal circumstances, the river might have been able to bounce back after a few adverse years. But Quasius says the Calooshatchee was already too far gone to replenish itself.
“The river is kind of like a man,” he says. “When you are young, you can take things in stride. You bounce back quickly. But the Caloosahatchee is an old man. It’s hard for it to get back to where it was.”
Some things are gone forever. The dredging that made the river more navigable for boats and allowed for the water out of Lake Okeechobee permanently changed the landscape. The 50,000 pounds of scallops harvested each year near the mouth of the river aren’t coming back. The bountiful blue crab hauls that led to more Florida crabs being served in Annapolis, Md., than their own famed Chesapeake Bay variety are lost, maybe for good. The thousands of acres of seagrass that provided food and habitat for countless varieties of fish will take years to return if conditions are optimal.
“All that being said, we have a plan,” Quasius says. “And we’re at the cusp of putting it all together.”
Engineers are finding ways to pump water back into the aquifers, where it can be stored for the dry season. Plans are in place to rehydrate wetland.
And most critically, the economic importance of quality water is becoming increasingly apparent. Quasius says the most conservative estimates put the value of $1 spent toward restoration of waterway at $4. Some estimates say a dollar spent is worth as much as $10.
Overall, the economic impact of water is measured in the tens of billions of dollars annually. Those figures might help sway government officials to pick up the progress. In fact, Gov. Rick Scott has pledged to put more money into environmental efforts.
“But at the same time, he cut the (South Florida Water Management District’s) budget by a third,” Quasius says. “So we are winning and losing.”
Which is leading groups like Audubon to start looking for less costly ideas. In order to function properly, the area around the Caloosahatchee needs somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 acre-feet of water storage. Quasius says his organization is working with the state and federal government to find areas where they can put that water. They are identifying farm lands they can lease and then flood to create storage. The planning is in place for a reservoir in Hendry County that would hold 170,000 acre-feet. But the project is waiting for several hundred million in federal funding.
“It’s a 50-50 partnership,” Quasius says. “We need the other side to step up.”
Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, gets right to the point.
“The biggest water issue in Collier County is the war on nutrient pollution,” he says, bluntly. “It’s killing Naples Bay.”
Of the 10 watershed areas the Conservancy analyzes regularly, only the Caloosahatchee is as imperiled as Naples Bay, which the organization gives a D- grade in both wildlife habitat and water quality. And the single biggest factor for that is nutrients.
Run-off from agricultural lands using excess fertilizer and seepage from the vast system of septic tanks in the Golden Gate Estates area pump the equivalent of steroids into the water supply. These nutrients have greatly changed the type of life that grows as a result.
The most noticeable results are the red tide blooms that have become common off Sanibel and Captiva islands. Naples Bay is seeing similar issues. But the nutrients also kill off seagrass, which provides the building block to the ecosystems of many types of marine life. Combine these issues with the continuing degradation of mangrove habitat (which in a healthy ecosystem helps by ingesting the excess nutrients) and run-off of copper sulfate (which is used to control algae growth in lakes and retention ponds) and it’s the perfect storm to create one of the most polluted bodies of water in the state.
But the will to control nutrients continues to butt up against agricultural and residential issues. The massive Golden Gate canal acts as a funnel sending the polluted waters to the bay. But without it, Golden Gate Estates would be a swamp. The state passed legislation to require inspection of septic tanks every five years, but the outcry was so deafening that it has yet to put the law in place and there is a bill this year that could repeal the ruling. Fertilizer manufacturers have so far managed to stave off most attempts to regulate use of their products throughout the state, while promoting to farmers the benefits of using what environmentalists such as McElwaine say is double the amount needed.
“I don’t understand it,” McElwaine says. “They manage to sell too much fertilizer to the ag business.”
In many ways, nutrient exposure is the biggest water quality issue in the country. Farm runoff into the Mississippi River has created a mammoth dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that chokes off almost all life. And there are battles over runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, which could help set standards environmentalists can use as a model in Florida.
Efforts by elected officials and conservation groups have managed to keep Naples Bay from getting worse. Water readings from along the watershed are in line with what they have been for the past five years. But that is a pyrrhic victory since the water quality is so bad it would be hard to deteriorate much more.
“We can’t get those last 70 years back,” McElwaine says of the time in which Naples Bay became polluted.
Lee and Collier counties are blessed and cursed. Our stunning beaches and breathtaking scenery make us a destination for the affluent retirees and tourists who drive our economies. But we are also at the end of the line when it comes to water. No matter how firm our community leaders stand up to the causes of water quality degradation, we still pay for the sins of our northern and inland neighbors.
Lasting and systemic change will be secured only at a regional and even statewide level, with competing interests coming to an understanding on things like mining rights, nutrient levels and lake discharges.
“It’s the classic environmental battle,” McElwaine says. “Do we want the cost of clean water? But Florida is a bit unique. Water is a big part of our economy. Having a clean beach matters in this part of the world.”
These are battles that have been going on since the 1980s and are likely still decades away from being completely resolved. But there is a great hope—Everglades restoration. Next month, writer Chad Gillis will take us into the muddled past and cloudy future of the largest environmental project ever undertaken.