Regulation News

Searching for a Solution to Florida’s Toxic Emergency

On 26 February 2016, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Lee, Martin and St. Lucie counties. He called on President Barack Obama to fund repairs to the Herbert Hoover dike around Lake Okeechobee, saying that if the administration had budgeted money to maintain the dike, damaging discharges into Florida rivers and estuaries would not be necessary.

 

This follows heavy rainfall which has resulted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) discharging massive amounts (over 30 billion gallons) of chemical-laden water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. But while the Governor calls on President Obama to act, environmentalists in Florida say his response to the discharges, which have been happening for decades, is pure politics—and that they already have a solution.

The Problem

The tainted water from Lake Okeechobee, laden with runoff from agricultural areas, is so foul that it has been compared to “flushing a toilet” onto Florida’s beaches. The problem is not new. It goes all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, when to expand farmable lands, the natural flow of water into the Everglades was blocked.

Referring to the practice, Marty Baum says that when “they (the sugar industry) are de-watering their fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area, they are flooding the canals and systems where people live.”

Catherine Wood, a resident of Martin County says that when her family purchased a home along the St. Lucie River, the water was clear with a sandy bottom, and she could fish for tarpon right off her dock. Decades later, she says, the water is an opaque soup with a sludge bottom that harbors flesh-eating bacteria. She worries that her dog will be poisoned and tells every tourist she meets to stay out of the water.

Florida’s elected officials, on the other hand, say the problem is an aging dike around Lake Okeechobee, and that the discharges are necessary to prevent a disaster of a different kind. In his proclamation, Governor Scott called on the Obama Administration to fully fund more than $800 million in repairs to the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike which, the Governor says, would safely hold water to prevent these discharges.

The Reaction

Two signs summarize the message from protestors in Florida: “Send the Water South” and “Lake Okeechobee discharges are killing my business.”

Some believe the second one is finally getting the attention of state lawmakers and that it is the impact on tourist dollars, not the ecosystem, that inspired Scott’s proclamation.

How incensed are citizens in the impacted counties? In a column appearing 27 February 2016, TC Palm columnist Ed Killer quoted Mike Holliday, a boat captain with thirty years experience who spoke to a group of business owners gathered the same day the Governor’s proclamation was issued.

“There's a storm of public outrage and it's coming after you Rick Scott. It's coming after you Marco Rubio. It's coming after you Adam Putnam and every (expletive) one of you who voted to misappropriate Amendment 1 funds.”

What is Amendment 1? In November 2014, Florida voters approved an amendment to designate money specifically to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee, in order to send the water currently pouring into estuaries first into storage areas (for cleaning), then south to the Everglades. The Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the Sierra Club all say that money was plundered by state politicians to pay for agency staffing and operational expenses. A lawsuit brought against the state is making its way through Circuit Court.

In his proclamation, Governor Scott said, "We need President Obama to get engaged immediately on this issue and fully fund the needed repairs to their dike so massive U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' discharges are no longer needed. With heavy rainfall and record discharges, we have no choice but to declare a State of Emergency in these counties today and hope President Obama will pay attention to this crisis."

According to Indian Riverkeeper Marty Baum, on the same day the order was issued, he visited Lake Okeechobee to confirm rumors that the South Florida Water Management District is “back pumping” polluted water from sugar cane fields into Lake Okeechobee. In his estimate, 4 billion gallons a day of water was being pumped into the Lake—water that is subsequently discharged into the counties now under a state of emergency.

Baum stated in a Facebook posting, “We feel these backpump events are illegal and should not be permitted even while in appeal.”

He called the poisoning of Florida’s rivers and estuaries “a slow motion Flint.”

A Proposed Solution

The October 2014 issue of ECO Magazine featured a look at a proposed solution to the Lake Okeechobee discharges written by Mark Perry, Executive Director, Florida Oceanographic Society.

In that article, Perry said that there were three basic parts to a successful solution: 1) convey more water south from Lake Okeechobee to equal or exceed the amount currently flowing east and west, 2) buy land south of the lake and store water temporarily as it moves south, 3) treat the water by slowly releasing it into storm water treatment areas and public lands to improve water quality as it moves into water conservation areas and the Everglades.

According to Governor Scott’s office, the State of Florida has invested nearly $2 billion in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and $1.8 billion in providing clean water to the Everglades. Governor Scott's 2016-2017 Florida First budget includes an additional $5 billion dollars over the next 20 years to substantially complete the CERP and ensure that clean water is sent to the Everglades.

Since the CERP was passed in 1999, the State of Florida has invested $880 million more than the federal government on implementing the 50/50 cost-share plan. This funding, in addition to the $800 million needed for the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs plus the $5 billion contained in Governor Scott's Florida First budget, means the federal government needs to invest $6.7 billion to keep up with Florida's commitment to the greater Everglades ecosystem over the next 20 years. President Obama only asked for $155.5 million next year, less than half of what the federal government should be investing annually.

To view Governor Scott’s Executive Order, click HERE.

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