We made history this year. Never before has the human health impacts of toxic algae been a prime consideration for water management in South Florida. In 2019, a change in operational management by the Army Corps lowered the level of Lake Okeechobee before the rainy season, sparing the northern estuaries from another horrific toxic summer. The successful deviation inspired public discussion, political debate, and media coverage in a way it never has before. For the first time, lawmakers and agencies enter a new year with an effective blueprint not just for recognizing our water management crisis, but for solving it.
We aren’t stopping there. In the coming days, a bill passed by the House ensuring dedicated federal funding to support critical Everglades restoration projects that will come online in the future is expected to be OK’ed by the Senate and signed by the President. Now we need to ensure short term solutions that will help to manage the system in a way that protects people from toxic blooms and keeps the greater Everglades ecosystem healthy right now.
As we look forward to 2020, we’re staying focused on ensuring safe water management for all Floridians, and we’re calling on lawmakers to fight for a variety of wish list priorities that will help make the difference. Each time we succeed in checking one off the list, we’ll be that much closer to taking back our water.
On our list:
- Operational Change: Keeping Lake Okeechobee artificially high in the dry season harms the health of the lake, the northern estuaries, Everglades National Park, Florida Bay, and South Florida’s drinking water supply. Maximizing the flow of water west to the Caloosahatchee and south to the Everglades and Florida Bay in the dry season benefits the environment and reduces the need for discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee in the summer when the potential for a toxic algae outbreak is high. It isn’t just a theory–this summer we got a glimpse of what an operational change can do for the whole system, and it’s worth fighting for.
- The Election of Clean Water Champions: Florida voters are going to get another chance in the coming year to elect lawmakers that will help make solving Florida’s water crisis a priority for our government. As Rep. Brian Mast has been for the St. Lucie, we desperately need a champion to step up for the Caloosahatchee on the west coast. There and beyond, we’re challenging voters across the state to help us make sure that there are political consequences for candidates who won’t fight to preserve, protect, and restore our greatest public resource.
- Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir: Independent experts have advised that the long-awaited EAA Reservoir will only be successful with the addition of significantly more storage and treatment capacity. Good intentions and expediency aren’t enough when faced with increasingly dangerous health hazards connected to toxic algae exposure. We’re on the brink of a new era in Lake Okeechobee management. Paired with adequate storage and treatment capacity, and stopping pollution at the source, annual toxic summers could finally be a thing of the past.
- Biosolids Ban: Biosolids. Sewage sludge. Human waste. Call it what you want–when diluted with mulch to cut concentrations of heavy metals and nutrients, it’s deemed fertilizer and isn’t tracked or regulated anymore. Much of it eventually winds up in runoff or groundwater that flows into our waterways where they can feed toxic algae blooms. For all those pointing fingers at septic systems, this badly tracked program deserves a very hard look–better yet, a complete overhaul. As a known issue, we should be moving towards prohibiting the use of all classes of biosolids in all state watersheds.
- Septic tank inspections: And speaking of septic tanks… let’s bring back mandatory annual inspections. Installed and maintained properly, septic systems are good technology. But with no way to regularly monitor the nearly 3 billion tanks in the state, they’ve become the favorite scapegoat for local water pollution. We need regular inspections, and we need cost-effective solutions for replacing those that are old, damaged, or otherwise improperly functioning.
- Meaningful Water Friendly Legislation: In recent years, environmental regulation has declined dramatically. Bringing back regulations for nutrient pollution with the real possibility of enforcement and fines could change the face of the greater Everglades ecosystem for the better.
We’ve got work to do. But we remain enthusiastic and hopeful for the future of our water. We’ll see you all in 2020.