The health of our water discussed at recent meeting

March 13, 2020
By Olivia Cameron

BY WESLEY LOCKE
“Be a nuisance where it counts. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics – but never give up.” -Marjory Stoneman Douglas 
As a passionate journalist, author, and environmentalist, Marjory Stoneman Douglas founded Friends of the Everglades in The Friends of Boca Grande met the Friends of the Everglades on Wednesday, March 4 when Executive Director Eve Samples came to discuss how the state of the Everglades impacts the water crises experienced on all sides of the state of Florida.
Archie Hagar, event co-sponsor to the Dumas-Turner Wealth Management Group, introduced Samples to the full auditorium, passionately stating how the future of Boca Grande depends on the education these groups have to offer.  
As Eve took the stage, she explained how she had been hired by Friends of the Everglades one month ago but as a journalist herself for the past 20 years, she spent the past 10 years dedicated to investigating and covering the effects of the water-quality issues experienced on the East and West coasts and how everything is connected. Samples stated that it is an honor to now be working on the front lines of conservation and to be a part of the fight that will save our state. 
In this presentation, Samples gave an update on the three fronts of Florida’s water crisis (Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie and Everglades/Florida Bay Estuaries), covered how we got to our current water-quality state, the health and economic impacts, and what we can do to help and get involved. 
All three estuaries have been heavily impacted by the water crisis. Lake Okeechobee contains toxic algae blooms, the Caloosahatchee estuary has experienced an outflow of toxic algae blooms stemming from the Lake O discharges that amplified the infamous 2018 Red Tide bloom, the St. Lucie River experienced multiple toxic algae blooms, and the Stuart area has been identified as a “cluster” for nonalcoholic liver disease. Meanwhile, the Everglades suffers from lack of fresh water and Florida Bay struggles with hypersalinity. In simple terms, the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie do not want any more fresh water (unfiltered and loaded with harmful nutrients) coming into their estuaries, and the Everglades and Florida Bay desperately need the fresh water (properly filtered after leaving Lake O) to restore the Everglades and Florida Bay. If the water was allowed to flow south, as naturally designed, our State would be on a much-needed road to recovery. 
How did we get in this algae- bloom-ridden mess? Eve did a great job of explaining how and why this is happening to our beloved pristine coastlines. Before the development of Florida, the water flowed south from the Kissimmee River Basin to Lake Okeechobee, filtering the fresh water through the Everglades naturally and exiting south Florida. This was known as the “River of Grass” so often mentioned in these discussions and marveled at in books like “A Land Remembered” and Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ own “River of Grass”.  When the Army Corps of Engineers built the Herbert Hoover Dike in the 1930s, this allowed for development south of the lake which currently is taken up by agriculture, specifically sugar farming. The flawed reality of this system is that over 50 years ago nobody was flagging the sugar corporations for using their direct access to Lake O for personal irrigation and blockage of the natural flow of Florida’s water.
This leads us into the operation of the lake and how it directly impacts our coast. Lake Okeechobee is raised and lowered by the Army Corps of Engineers. The lake is much healthier when it is maintained at a lower level, as it was never high naturally. When it is held lower, there is a lower likelihood of discharges to the east and west.
If you’ll recall, in 2018 right before the red tide bloom in early June, we experienced heavy rainfall in late May. With an already high Lake O, the discharges out of the Caloosahatchee River were imminent to protect those south of the lake from flooding.  With the toxic algae blooms that were unfiltered upon release , the pre-existing red tide bloom off shore was sent into severe acceleration. 
Wonder why we had such a good year in 2019? The lake was held lower in the dry months, so there was no need for massive summertime discharges. So why did U.S. Sugar file a lawsuit against the Army Corps over Lake Okeechobee management’s “low water levels”? If the lake is held low, there is no excess water for the sugar companies to use for their personal benefit, so it is to their advantage for the lake to be held higher – and to the disadvantage of everyone else. 
In an effort to debunk the “Mickey Myth” Eve said, “There is a perception that Orlando and Disney World are the ‘bad guys’ in this narrative, and while they do contribute to some of the pollution, the upper Kissimmee watershed has some of the cleanest water entering the lake. Agriculture is the primary source of pollution in the 5,400 square mile watershed.” 
When these toxic algae blooms land in our backyards, as we all know, we experience the overwhelming economic and public health impacts.  Economically, SW Florida lost $3.75 million in coastal property sales in 2018. Hotels in Sanibel/Captiva lost $8 million in revenue due to 78 percent cancellation rate from August to October the same year, and $14.5 million in emergency funds was allocated to clean up Lee County beaches. Although the specific dollars were not stated for Boca Grande, the island community is well aware of the devastating impact the 2018 bloom had on businesses and residents.   
In reference to public health, many remember the respiratory nightmare that came with the 2018 red tide as well as the endless mass of dead and decaying sea life that washed on our shores. In the 2016 and 2018 algae blooms on the East coast, many businesses closed offices for the duration of the blooms and even relocated away from the water because of the ill effects on their staff’s health, including companies like Florida Sportsman Magazine, whose readers’ lifestyles depend on clean water.   
In regard to public health, Samples stated, “Despite the mounting research about health risks, the Florida Deptartment of Health has not been transparent or proactive enough about harmful algae blooms. Investigation by the News-Press included examining more than 2,600 emails within the Florida Department of Health during the 2018 bloom and found that their responses were deflective and confusing, usually referring concerned residents to generic information on their website if they answered at all.”  
It seems that they were more concerned about their public image than the health of the public.  
In a response to that investigative story, Samples wrote an editorial calling on Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to position our state as a worldwide leader by putting public health at the heart of environmental policy.   
Although this topic can be disheartening and discouraging, it is not without hope. How do we fix it? There is a three-pronged approach focusing on infrastructure, operations and water quality.
 – Infrastructure (water storage and treatment): The state needs an EAA reservoir that works with adequate water storage and cleansing marshes south of Lake Okeechobee. 
– Operations (Water managers need to manage the lake for human health): Army Corps should aim to get Lake O below 11 feet by June 1st.The new lake management plan should prioritize public health.
– Water quality (enforceable pollution limits): Elect candidates who support clean-water policies.
Samples discussed the $1.8 billion long-term fix known as the proposed EAA Storage Reservoir. From the outset of this project, science has raised flags about whether the reservoir will have a large enough footprint for “stormwater treatment areas” (STAs), which are manmade filter marshes that are designed to emulate the natural filtration process of the Everglades before the water gets sent south. So Friends of the Everglades pitches a “near-term fix” which changes how Lake O is managed. It is the fastest, cheapest way to minimize toxic discharges to estuaries to keep the lake lower in the dry season. Friends of the Everglades has worked with the Rivers Coalition and the city of Stuart to push for better Lake O management NOW. The Army Corps and SWFMD have the authority to limit Lake Okeechobee to 11 ft by June 1st. LOSOM or the “Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual” is being re-evaluated to coincide with completion of work on the Herbert Hoover Dike in 2022. The Corps says LOSOM will “re-examine” opportunities to manage the lake for “flood control, water supply, navigation, recreation, and preservation of fish and wildlife resources.” It is Friends of the Everglades’ strong belief that human health must be a central priority when addressing the lakes operation.
So what does the Friends of the Everglades do for our water? This organization is advocating for better Lake Okeechobee management to prevent discharges and send the water south. They worked with Representative Brian Mast on the “Protect Florida Act,” they actively push to make the EAA Reservoir effective, and they are party to a landmark Everglades water-quality lawsuit to enforce phosphorus limits on polluters. 
Founder Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who lived to be 108 years old and felt her prime environmental fighting years were in her 80s, is proof that one person can make a difference. If you are wondering what you can do, the best action is to properly educate yourself on these issues, facts, and the science that backs it up. Beyond that, Samples stated that you can support health-first management of Lake Okeechobee where LOSOM is concerned, write SFWMD and Congress to support the EAA Reservoir improvements, be a counterweight to special interests and demand more of FL Legislature (enforcing of pollution limits, mandatory septic inspections, and banning of biosolids).   
At the tail end of the presentation, Eve announced that  Friends of the Everglades partnered with Bullsugar.org to advance the clean-water movement. For those unfamiliar with it, in 2014, Stuart residents launched a small but bold group called Bullsugar in response to the toxic algae crisis. Samples introduced Bullsugar board member Ray Judah, former Lee County Commissioner, to talk about the organization. Where many of the nonprofits in the clean-water fight are 501(c)3s and cannot endorse political candidates, Bullsugar is a 501(c)4, known for their bold refusal to accept the water crisis that policy and history has put Florida in. Residents may recall the “Voter’s Guide” that was published in the Boca Beacon during the last election. One of Bullsugar’s primary objectives is to research candidates (their policies and where they get their funding) and lay out the research in a chart so voters can see which candidates are advocates for water quality and which have other incentives. The Voter’s Guide makes sure that water stakeholders can be sure to “Vote Water” to preserve their homes, businesses, and lifestyle.
After an inquisitive Q & A, the attendees mingled with the organizations outside with food catered by Chef Tim Spain, sponsored by Archie Hagar, and drinks sponsored by Dumas-Turner Wealth Management Group.  
All in all, it was an incredibly educational presentation with a great opportunity for personal inquiries and concerns about the current state and future of Boca Grande’s water quality. Eve Samples proved to be a chip off the old Marjory Stoneman Douglas block as a former journalist turned activist with an immense passion for contributing to a cleaner, healthier, and better Everglades and state of Florida. I know I am not alone In believing that Florida has the best chance for recovery with people like Eve Samples joining the fight.    
To learn more about the political faction of the clean-water fight, Bullsugar.org will be hosting an event on Saturday, April 4 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Boca Bay Power House on Gulf Boulevard.  To RSVP for this event, email rsvp@bullsugar.org.
For more information about Friends of the Everglades, contact (305) 669-0858 or info@everglades.org.