What’s Wrong With Florida Bay?

It’s no longer news that Florida’s water management system is broken. We know that water that historically traveled south from Lake Okeechobee, rehydrating the Everglades, is instead wasted to tide in the northern estuaries thanks to operational priorities that have long favored the needs of the agricultural industry. 

Along the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee, we’ve seen what that looks like: headline-grabbing toxic algal blooms, steep decline in critical marine habitats, economic damages including increased pressure on local businesses and deteriorating real estate values, and a general sense of alarm and confusion from local populations worried about known and unknown human health effects. 

But what happens at the southern end of the system, where a chronic freshwater deficit wreaks a whole different type of havoc on an estuary once held in balance by the very resource that’s killing it’s northern counterparts? 

We sat down with Marine Ecologist and Associate Professor from Florida International University, Dr. Jennifer Rehage, to get a better understanding of how freshwater flow (or lack thereof) influences the health of Florida Bay.

The sad and sorry truth: Florida Bay is starving for water. Dr. Rehage says that research estimates that water flow reaching Florida Bay in the dry season is 10-20 times less now than historic figures suggest, contributing to extreme spikes in salinity. The resulting salinity imbalance has a cascade of negative effects, propelling peat collapse that makes the Everglades more vulnerable to sea level rise and provoking massive seagrass die-off events that drive the same types of destructive algal blooms that the northern estuaries experience. At risk is an iconic ecosystem deeply ingrained in the culture of Floridians that boasts a fishery with an annual economic impact of $500 million.

We can fix this. In 2019, human health concerns related to cyanobacteria exposure prompted the Army Corps to manage Lake Okeechobee differently, drawing down artificially high lake levels in an effort to avoid the need for large releases during the summer months when conditions are ripe for toxic algae outbreaks. The deviation was a success–resulting in a summer of zero discharges to the St. Lucie and significantly limited releases to the Caloosahatchee. 

State and federal water managers have the chance right now to build on last year’s achievement, potentially relieving Floridians from another toxic summer by increasing southbound flows to Florida Bay’s health. 

Changing operational management of Lake O could mean that the sugar industry might have to give up a touch of its two-year backup water supply in a dry year, but given Florida’s recent history of repeatedly serious human health and environmental impacts, it’s no longer a reasonable option to prioritize the could be needs of agriculture above the rest of the state. We have better options. It’s time to use them. 

We have a fighting chance to save 3 world class estuaries with one sweeping shift in water policy. After the success we saw last year, it would be a step backwards not to manage the system in a way that protects people from toxic blooms and keeps the northern estuaries, the Everglades, and Florida Bay healthy.