The system we have right now might work if Florida weather was predictable. It’s not. We average about 55 inches of rain, but we have more extreme years than we have average years. Mismanaged priorities and our broken operational system leaves massive discharges to our coasts as our only option in wet years.
We’ve seen the toxic results. We’ve felt the impact on our health and our economies. We’ve watched it kill the oysters and the seagrass beds.
Even before we knew to worry about the human health crisis unleashed in toxic Lake Okeechobee discharges, the far-reaching environmental destruction illustrated that if the existing water management system was continued, the estuaries would be irrevocably destroyed, and the Everglades would die with them. Because it wasn’t just the estuaries being hurt; every drop wasted killing them is a drop that isn’t cleaned and sent south to sustain the Everglades and Florida Bay. For years, we got lip service for a solution, but no real attempts to reduce discharges.
Until now. The political leadership of people like Congressman Mast and Governor DeSantis has forced public acknowledgement that changing the way the existing system is managed, starting with drawing the lake down in the dry season and boosting flows of clean freshwater to the Everglades, is the only path towards a near-term solution.
In a recent #LakeOFactCheck, Rep. Mast reminded us that Lake Okeechobee is the primary contributor to the toxic blooms in our estuaries. With recent NOAA images already revealing a faint but substantial algae bloom forming on Lake Okeechobee, cutting discharges to the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee gives us the best chance of preventing another multi-coast lost summer; but to avoid catastrophic blooms in the estuaries, we need to avoid catastrophic releases.
Safer management of Lake Okeechobee could address three devastating water crises WITHOUT spending additional taxpayer dollars–simply by focusing less on when to begin large discharge events, and more on how to keep the lake from getting so high that large discharge events become the only choice.
So do any of us have anything to lose in this scenario?
If we answer this question honestly, the sugarcane industry loses its publicly funded insurance policy against drought. In forty years of USDA crop records, Florida sugarcane has never experienced water shortage, thanks to our policy of holding a two-year backup supply in Lake Okeechobee.
That policy doesn’t protect anyone else, though. It’s a little known fact that municipal utilities, golf courses, decorative fountains, and yard sprinklers have to cut back in a drought… but agricultural permit holders do not. In fact, they get more, reasoning that crops need more water in a drought. (Compared to what the industry gets in a dry year, Palm Beach County’s water needs are a drop in the bucket–it’s false to pretend that the two-year irrigation stockpile in Lake Okeechobee affects municipal supplies.)
Elsewhere farmers take out crop insurance to help them through extreme conditions. Here they don’t need to. Are there ways to leave the industry’s two-year hedge intact and rely on technology to solve our water crisis? In theory, maybe. But it’s not massive taxpayer investment in pumping excess rainwater into deep wells that can never pump out as fast as you can discharge. And it’ll never be possible if the sugar industry obstructs additional storage capacity in the Everglades Agricultural Area–including their recent lobbying effort to shrink the EAA Reservoir championed by former Senator Joe Negron. Our EAA reservoir could help in ten or twenty years… but only if it’s designed with enough treatment capacity to clean the water it collects. Experts agree that it isn’t.
Until that day–if it ever arrives–the only real answer is to send more clean water south in the beginning of the dry season, taking advantage of unused capacity in the taxpayer-funded stormwater treatment areas, and unused capacity in the canal system. There’s a risk that Florida’s sugarcane industry would have to give up a trace of its two-year backup for West Palm Beach residents in a dry year. Or a fraction of its claim for the benefit of the Lake Okeechobee’s ecology. But the cost of this solution to taxpayers would be so low that voters might decide to compensate the industry for any resulting shortfalls–a bargain compared to another year of toxic discharges.
Floridians can continue to count on wildly unpredictable climate. It will always be possible to get more rain than any system can handle, and for that reason harmful discharges may always be an unfortunate option. What we shouldn’t have to count on is a system that forces us to choose them as a first–or an only–option every time.
We’ve seen the consequences. Over and over.