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Now or Neverglades Update: More Water Treatment Needed

Decades of Florida’s water mismanagement has brought Florida Bay and its bonefish, tarpon, and snook fisheries to the brink of irreversible collapse. The Everglades, the source of freshwater for the Bay’s productive brackish waters, has been dried out. Insufficient freshwater renders the Bay hyper-saline (too salty), killing thousands of acres of vital seagrass beds and fouling the water with vast mats of stinking, decaying grass. Rotting grass depletes oxygen, suffocating fish and prey, while feeding giant algae blooms, turning once clear waters into murky pea-green soup. The National Academy of Sciences worries that the Bay may not be able to recover from this latest assault. BTT recognizes that efforts to conserve tarpon and restore bonefish will fail if Florida Bay’s waters remain a fouled mess.

Farther north, the freshwater needed in the Everglades and Florida Bay is discharged into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river systems, wrecking those estuaries as well. Polluted Lake Okeechobee water, loaded with phosphorus from agricultural runoff, overwhelms these systems, growing slimy toxic algae and killing fish, seagrass, and oysters. Only the worst kind of water management can simultaneously decimate three historically great fisheries.

These are not new developments, which understandably compounds anglers’ anger and frustration.  Federal and State governments approved comprehensive Everglades restoration plans in 1988 and 2000 to fix these very problems. The plans dictated that polluted Lake Okeechobee waters would be stored and cleaned in newly constructed treatment reservoirs or Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) south of Lake Okeechobee before being sent through the Everglades to Florida Bay. Within the Everglades, many of the dams, ditches, and dikes would be removed, allowing cleaned freshwater to flow south as nature intended. This would result in the Everglades and Florida Bay getting much-needed water and end the devastating discharges of polluted Lake Okeechobee water into the Calooshatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This restoration would allow the region’s fisheries and habitats to recover.

Unfortunately, a lethal combination of entrenched opposition from sugar companies, bureaucratic inertia, and soft political leadership (except in a few noteworthy cases) has stymied these restoration plans.

Florida citizens are outraged at the delay and continued destruction of their fisheries. People are fighting back to reenergize the restoration effort and letting the State’s political leadership know that mere lip service to restoration is not enough. BTT is proud to be part of the Now or Neverglades coalition—a diverse collection of organizations, individuals, and companies dedicated to fixing the Everglades and Florida Bay.

This grassroots uprising produced a notable win in 2017. Under the strong leadership of Florida Senate President Joe Negron, the State passed Senate Bill 10, which directed the construction of a large reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. There was near unanimity among Everglades scientists that persistent pollution in Okeechobee and hyper-salinity in Florida Bay required more STA capacity than was originally approved in 2000. In response, the new legislation directed the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to expedite development of such a project. Unfortunately, plans being advanced by SFWMD miss the mark by not creating sufficient capacity to store and effectively filter water in volumes necessary to achieve restoration objectives.

In order to be effective, STAs must be large and shallow. They must be large in order to hold and treat large volumes of water before the cleaned water is sent south into the Everglades. They must be shallow so that plants, such as underwater grasses, marsh grasses, and cattails can grow. As these plants grow, they remove the excess nutrients from the water—this is the cleaning process that allows the water to be sent south into the Everglades.

SFWMD’s recently released STA plan calls for a small, deep reservoir with 240,000 square-feet of water and an associated STA of 6,500 acres. The agency, which is accountable to Governor Rick Scott, has resisted repeated calls to enlarge the footprint through the acquisition of additional lands as allowed by SB10. BTT joins with others across the scientific community in calling for an STA at least twice as large as currently planned in order to establish proposed flows and ensure that federal water quality standards are met.

The destruction of the Everglades and Florida Bay by water mismanagement policies that have failed for decades won’t change unless the system changes. And the system won’t change unless Florida’s citizens, as well as those who travel to Florida to enjoy the state’s natural resources, make their voices heard. We call on our BTT members, Floridians, and all who care about the Everglades and Florida Bay to stay informed and engaged throughout this important process, beginning with your sustained outreach to Governor Scott and elected officials to advocate for an SB10 compliant reservoir and STA that can finally get the job done.