VoteWater Deep Dive: Why can’t we send more water south?

Because the system was designed to benefit Big Agriculture – at the expense of the northern estuaries

It’s been a common refrain from angry citizens along the algae-clogged St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries for years:

Send it south!

And in recent weeks, as Lake Okeechobee’s water level has held above 16 feet and many began to worry about the possibility of harmful discharges to the estuaries, the questions have become more pointed: Florida has 57,000 acres of “stormwater treatment areas,” STAs, south of the lake which could handle excess lake water so the estuaries don’t have to.

How is it there’s no room in the STAs for lake water — but always plenty of room for runoff from the Everglades Agricultural Area?

The answer’s both simple and deceptively complex:

Because that’s how the system was built.

And changing it has been a frustratingly slow process, a never-ending battle that may ultimately require new tactics.

The bad old days

In 1988 Ronald Reagan was in the White House and “hair metal” ruled the pop music charts. But in South Florida, it was time to pay the piper.

The bill for “draining the swamp” had come due, as the federal government sued the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation — now the Department of Environmental Protection — alleging that “unique environmental treasures” were being destroyed by polluted water allowed to flow untreated off fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area into Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

The water, with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, was causing non-native plants to displace native vegetation. Everglades officials characterized the polluted water as a “cancer” that was killing the national park.

After three bitter years in court, the state and the feds in 1991 agreed to end the lawsuit, with the state accepting responsibility to clean the agricultural runoff via new artificial marshes we now know as STAs. The agreement was accepted by a judge and adopted as a consent decree.

But that decree said nothing about taking water from the lake. Though the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries had been hammered by discharges from Lake Okeechobee for decades, the STAs weren’t designed or intended to relieve pressure on the estuaries. Their sole purpose was to accommodate agricultural runoff.

But Big Agriculture fought them almost every step of the way.

Lawsuits and more lawsuits

Agricultural interests “continued to deny responsibility for the damage,” according to an account by the New York Times. And the industry sought to intervene in the original lawsuit at numerous junctures, challenging the 1991 consent decree on a number of grounds, suing the Department of Environmental Regulation over public documents and more. Indeed, industry lawsuits derailed the initial plan to implement the consent decree.

Agricultural interest groups sued when the Water Management District proposed new rules requiring “best management practices” to reduce nutrient pollution in farm runoff; they sued when the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed a permit for the first of the STAs.

Some environmental groups including VoteWater’s strategic partner, Friends of the Everglades objected to the fact taxpayers had to shoulder most of the burden to clean up Big Ag’s pollution. Subsequently, Friends and the Miccosukee Tribe would file their own lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature passed the Everglades Protection Act in 1991, which was rewritten in 1994 as the Everglades Forever Act and modeled on the consent decree. It authorized construction of six STAs to clean water from the EAA, and authorized an agricultural privilege tax to help fund Everglades restoration including operation of the STAs.

Still (almost) no room at the inn

 Today, more than 44 years after that 1988 lawsuit, Everglades restoration is picking up steam due to record funding levels. But there’s still very little room for water from Lake Okeechobee in the STAs.

Five STAs were built: STA 1E and STA 1W (on the eastern side of Lake Okeechobee and collectively referred to as the “eastern flow path”); STA 2 and STA 3/ 4 (the “central flow path); and STA 5/6 (the “western flow path). A sixth will be built in conjunction with the EAA Reservoir.

When lake water is sent south it travels primarily down the central flow path; and the amount of water “sent south” varies by year and by conditions.

South Florida Water Management District data shows that in 2019 the year after the 2018 algae crises in the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee nearly ⅓ of the water coming into the six STAs came from the lake. In 2015, two years after the horrific 2013 algae crisis, 43% of water into the STAs came from the lake.

By contrast, in both 2021 and 2022 the figure was under 11%.

Construction of the EAA Reservoir, to be completed by 2032, will enable the system to handle more lake water, and new management strategies articulated in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) should help reduce damaging discharges.

But between now and the completion of the reservoir, the STAs may actually take less lake water.

The STAs need to be carefully managed due to a looming deadline. By 2025, water flowing south needs to meet a court-imposed “Water Quality Based Effluent Limit” (WQBEL) of 10 parts per billion total phosphorus in the Everglades Protection Area.

In other words, two wet seasons from now, the pollution level in water leaving the STAs really starts to matter. And if water quality can’t meet the standard the amount of water going south could be far less than what we’ve been promised.

Some help, but not enough

Unfortunately, according to a recent report by the National Academies of Science, only one of the STAs, STA 3/4, are currently meeting the WQBEL. For the other STAs to meet that goal, they have to become more efficient at phosphorus removal.

Maximizing STA efficiency likely means taking less lake water, not more, say water managers.

Beyond this, if the WQBEL isn’t met, the EAA Reservoir can’t be operated at full capacity meaning it won’t be able to take as much lake water as advertised.

So some relief is on the way for the oft-beleaguered estuaries. But we can’t know exactly when, or how much.

One thing we do know: The EAA will continue to enjoy perfect flood protection and ideal growing conditions, even if or when we’re struggling with another algae crisis on the coasts. Because that’s how the system was designed for their benefit, not ours

So how do you change it? “Vote Water” is the first step electing public officials who prioritize that change.

There’s obviously a need for more water storage via additional STAs. The National Academies of Science says as much in its report, noting that any inability to meet the WQBEL could necessitate “expanding the footprint” of the STAs i.e. acquire more land. But this is on virtually no public officials’ agenda. Given how long it takes to acquire land and build the necessary storage, we need to be talking about this now.

Beyond more land, reducing phosphorus inputs was also recommended in the National Academies report. Data suggests there’s less phosphorus coming into STAs in the “central flow path” where lake water flows when it goes into the STAs than in the eastern or western flow path. In other words, prioritizing lake water over EAA runoff might actually help the STAs meet those pollution limits.

What if discharges to the estuaries had to meet pollution limits, as with water sent south to the Everglades beginning in 2025?

Likewise, the proposed Constitutional amendment guaranteeing Floridians the right to clean water could help with water quality, though water quantity being pushed to the estuaries could remain a problem.

What other creative or innovative strategies should be pursued?

What will it take to not merely reduce, but end harmful discharges to the estuaries once and for all?

Because for all the progress seen and progress promised we’ve still got a long way to go.