For the last month, the Caloosahatchee estuary hasn’t gotten the freshwater it needs to survive. This week salinity levels at Ft. Myers climbed high enough to kill tape grass, the lifeline for virtually everything in this environment.
The cause is NOT South Florida’s ongoing drought, though. Desperately needed flows from Lake Okeechobee have been reduced to a trickle or cut off entirely by the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers. Water managers plan to keep on restricting the Caloosahatchee’s freshwater allotment for the foreseeable future, so conditions won’t improve anytime soon.
Meanwhile the sugar industry’s operations in the Everglades Agricultural Area continue to get as much freshwater from Lake Okeechobee as they need. Their continued prosperity comes at the expense of the Caloosahatchee and the tourism, fishing, marine recreation industries that decline with it.
The regulation schedules designed to fairly manage South Florida’s water were supposed to be based on the idea of “shared adversity,” where the burden of too little or too much water is spread across everyone in the system. But sugar, the only crop in the US never to suffer a serious failure (despite government support that prevents financial loss) has always gotten whatever irrigation or drainage it needs. Last year, the Treasure Coast paid the price. This year it’s the Gulf Coast.
The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, with a panel of scientists, monitors conditions on the Caloosahatchee and sends status reports to water managers. After a month of receiving less freshwater through the Franklin Lock than the river is supposed to get, the panel has asked for pulse flows–periodic surges of water–to help tape grass, oysters, and the entire ecosystem cling to life until there’s more rainfall to share.
Water managers aren’t obliged to listen or do anything to help. If they decide to let the Caloosahatchee collapse while sugarcane fields thrive, Gulf Coasts residents have no recourse other than “pray for rain.” It’s not fair. It’s not economical. And it’s definitely not shared adversity. Florida needs to fix this.