The Caloosahatchee’s in trouble – and we need a political solution

The following is commentary by Ray Judah, a member of the VoteWater Board of Directors and a former Lee County Commissioner.

Poor water quality in the Caloosahatche river and our coastal estuaries is a political problem and requires a political solution. Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature and Lee County Commission have neither the will or courage to use their positions as elected officials to properly manage our waterways in the best interest of the public.

Instead of supporting legislation or policies to restore and clean our precious water resources, our local and state representatives capitulate to special interests, such as the Sugar Industry, that funnel dark money into their campaign coffers.

The insidious mismanagement of Lake Okeechobee for water supply and drainage for the approximately 440,000 acres of sugar cane fields south of the lake result in harmful algae blooms downstream that is harmful to people, fish and wildlife. The replumbing of the Lake Okeechobee watershed for the benefit of Big Sugar prevents critical fresh water from flowing south to nourish the Everglades and Florida Bay, recharge ground water aquifers, attenuate the advancement of salt water intrusion due to sea level rise, and minimize the adverse impact on coastal estuaries.

Approximately, 50,000 acres (7% of lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area, EAA) south of the lake needs to be purchased and placed in the public domain for storage and treatment of water runoff from Lake Okeechobee. Money for the land purchase is available from the Amendment 1 Conservation Funds approved by Florida voters in 2014.

The Lee County Commission needs to coordinate with Congressional and Legislative delegation to support acquisition of 20,000 acres from U.S. Sugar and 30,000 acres from Florida Crystals between the North New River and Miami canals and south of Lake Okeechobee for storage, treatment and conveyance of fresh water to the Everglades.

In 1996, Florida voters approved the Polluters Pay Constitutional Amendment that requires those primarily responsible for pollution around Lake Okeechobee to clean up their pollution. The Legislature has deferred implementation of this public mandate thereby placing the financial burden of restoring impaired waters on the backs of the public.

The Lee County Commissioners need to collaborate with the Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties and the Legislative Delegation to implement the 1996 Polluters Pay Constitutional Amendment.

Central to the decision by the South Florida Water Management District in managing the Lake Okeechobee watershed is to maintain water levels at 18 to 24 inches below ground in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of the Lake, to ensure optimum growing conditions for sugar cane regardless of the seasonal fluctuations of rainfall.

So during years of heavy rainfall, excess water is back pumped from the EAA into Lake Okeechobee and released to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie resulting in excessive discharge of polluted water downstream to the estuaries on the west and east coast of south Florida. Unlike EAA drainage to the Everglades where a Federal Consent Decree requires phosphorus threshold levels of 10 ppb in surface water runoff, no such numeric nutrient standards are required for water back pumped into the lake.

The Lee County Commission and Legislative Delegation need to work jointly to implement numeric nutrient standards for water back pumped from the EAA to Lake Okeechobee thereby minimizing the loading of phosphorus and nitrogen in the lake to mitigate damaging harmful algae blooms.

Action speaks louder than words so while our current County Commissioners and Legislative delegation fabricate their positions on environmental issues our community will continue to witness the demise of the Caloosahatchee and coastal estuaries until they are replaced with elected officials that are genuinely committed to clean water.

Unfortunately, the political arena has evolved into an ideological battle ground where fundamental issues such as responsible stewardship of our environment is ignored to the detriment of our public health, real estate and tourism based economy and restoration of our water resources.

Silence is consent and the lack of viable local and state candidates to challenge the status quo leaves the future of our environment in the balance.