Right now billions of gallons of fertilizer, sewage, and legacy pollution from Lake Okeechobee are spewing into the St. Lucie River, carrying a new threat of toxic algae. Water managers may say Irma left them no choice, but of course that’s a half-truth, at best.
First, even as water levels rose SFWMD back-pumped cyanobacteria-fueling runoff from sugar fields into the lake instead of asking the industry to hold it, increasing the risk of exposing riverside communities to toxins linked to cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, liver and heart failure. So given a choice between protecting sugarcane and protecting people, the district rolled the dice on cancer.
Second, the district has given no indication it’s making real progress on the one initiative that can offer a better choice than discharging lakewater to the rivers: the EAA reservoir. The entire project, despite the heroic efforts of Joe Negron, Bullsugar supporters, and countless others, appears to be on track to fail.
That’s because to work, the reservoir needs to be dynamic–constantly filling and emptying, filtering water on its way south the way the River of Grass did before we dammed it. It needs land to flow through, and every qualified engineer knows the current plan doesn’t have enough.
Exactly how much more land does the project need? Honestly, we don’t know. No one does.
To find that out, water managers need to model the system and work out the requirements to get the greatest possible inflow to reduce discharges and the greatest possible outflow to deliver clean water to the Everglades and Florida Bay. The project can’t begin without that model, and there’s no sign of it from SFWMD–despite being required by state law.
The good news is when we find out how much more land we need, we have options–even if the sugar industry refuses to sell more. The public already owns thousands of acres near the proposed reservoir, much of which is now being used to clean runoff from sugarcane fields. As soon as SFWMD releases its modeling, we can start work on returning that land to public service. But we need that model.
Lake Okeechobee is still overfull with weeks to go before the end of hurricane season. Even if the reservoir project started tomorrow, the corps and the district could face the same choices next year and the year after. That’s why the project should start tomorrow, beginning with the modeling and finding out how much more land it needs to work. Because there has to be a better option than cancer.