Boy, the water looks good – our problems must be solved, right?

Signs of new seagrass growth returns near the Stuart Sandbar this week. We need more than hope to make sure they survive. Photo by Dave Preston

Call this the calm before the storm.

Take a look around at the waterways where you live. They look pretty good, right?

After an appropriately dry dry season, many oft-turbid waterways are clear and blue. In some regions seagrass is even tentatively beginning to grow back.

So it’s all good, right?

Don’t kid yourself.

First, what’s in that clear water? Here’s the opening paragraph of a June 7 Florida Today article answering that question:
Everywhere scientists look in the Indian River Lagoon, they find so-called “forever chemicals,” in some places at almost four times the levels of what’s safe in drinking water, according to a recently published scientific study by the University of Florida.

And in fact, later in the article comes news that the compounds — called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), man-made chemicals linked to ill health effects that scientists are just beginning to unravel and understand — “are being found everywhere scientists look for them in the environment.

The situation’s particularly bad in the area of the Banana River due to the use of firefighting foams at Kennedy Space Center and Patrick Space Force Base over the decades, in addition to wastewater discharges and the stagnant nature of the waterway.

But it’s not just the northern lagoon; these chemicals may well be in those “clear” waterways near you, too.

And then, just how long can we expect the waters to stay clear?

In early June the Florida Department of Health warned people to avoid contact with water at the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam on Lake Okeechobee’s eastern shoreline and the C-44 Canal east of the lock because it contains toxic algae.

This was the fourth toxic algae alert for the Treasure Coast region this year; “Such alerts are most common in the hotter, wetter summer months,” reported TCPalm.

So too are discharges from the lake, which can carry the blooms to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries — where they have a tendency to explode.

As of this writing Lake Okeechobee stands at 13.02 feet, very close to where it was this time last year. But in early June 2020 the lake was close to a foot lower; the previous year, 2019, the lake was nearly two feet lower than it is right now.

This doesn’t mean algae-laden discharges are definitely coming your way this year — it’s all up to Mother Nature, and how water managers react to her actions.

But it underscores the fact that however clear your water looks right now, we haven’t solved the core problems; when it comes to discharges and algae blooms on the coasts and so many of our other problems, hope is the plan.

This is the biggest challenge facing Florida’s clean-water movement. A crisis galvanizes the public; but when the water looks good interest fades, even when the next crisis lurks just around the corner.

Florida legislators still need to act on key recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide/Harmful Algal Bloom task forces which have so far been ignored. We need to crack down on polluters, we need to spend astronomical sums on infrastructure upgrades, we need to slow the loss of key wetlands and other sensitive areas.

And we need to convince the Florida Legislature to stop passing laws — like this year’s Senate Bill 1000destined to make things worse.

So don’t be fooled by pristine-looking waterways now. If you’ve been in Florida any length of time, you know that’s subject to change.

We need to keep fighting even when the water looks clear, especially when it looks clear, for the right policies, and politicians, to bring us lasting change, waters that are pristine — and stay that way.