Hope for a dying estuary:  Comprehensive Everglades Restoration

The Indian River Lagoon has been designated an Estuary of National Significance. It has the greatest biodiversity and the largest number of species of any estuary in the United States. One Third of America’s manatees live there alongside smiling dolphin, jumping mullet, and rare seagrasses.

The St. Lucie Estuary anchors the south end of the long l56 mile lagoon. It dominates the lagoon as far as freshwater inflows are concerned.

That wasn’t always so. In the beginning, the St. Lucie River had no connection to Lake Okeechobee. Drainage to the lagoon was limited to the coastal ridge. The magic mix of fresh and saltwater that creates a productive estuary worked.

In the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Florida set out to drain the Everglades – the second largest wetland in the world.

By the end of the Twentieth Century they were trying to put it back like they found it.

Way back then, all the way from Orlando to Cape Sable at the south end of Florida, “progress” was about getting rid of water. They cut canals to move water quickly and connected them to tide to drain the swamps. They dredged and filled to make high ground out of low ground.

Their progress ran up against two great hurricanes in 1926 and 1928. The rains came down and the water rose. The high ground wasn’t high enough. The canals weren’t wide enough. The dikes around Lake Okeechobee weren’t big enough. Thousands of people died in those storms.

They set out to build better dikes and find a way to get rid of more water faster. On the west side of Lake Okeechobee they connected the Lake to the Caloosahatchee River. On the east side they dug the St. Lucie Canal all the way from the Lake to the coast to connect to the St. Lucie River and the estuary. The coastal estuaries became the dumping ground for Lake Okeechobee – the escape valve that allowed development to continue in wet South Florida.

In 1930 the Martin County Commission sent their first resolution to Congress complaining that Lake dumping was destroying their estuary. They’ve been complaining ever since.

In 1992, as part of much larger concerns for the future of all of South Florida, Congress ordered the Corps of Engineers to fix the environmental damage done in the name of progress.

In 1999 the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was complete. In 2000 Congress authorized CERP to restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida Ecosystems.

By then the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon were battered and bruised by the Lake Okeechobee discharges. As water demands in South Florida required higher Lake Okeechobee levels, more emergency discharges happened. As the over-drained system made Lake Okeechobee into an industrial nutrient sump instead of a functioning Lake, the discharges got dirtier.

The consequences to the St. Lucie Estuary were ugly.

First the oyster bars that are so important to the estuary died. Oysters can’t swim away. Then algae blooms from the Lake moved out to the coast. Then “lesioned fish” appeared in the estuary following discharges. That’s a polite way of describing the ugly red open sores in the fish that survived.

Most recently the Health Department has warned the population not to set foot in the estuary. The rainy summer of 2013 has resulted in increasing discharges. The bacterial count all the way out to the mouth of the St. Lucie Inlet is dangerous for human contact.

More ominous still, a neon- green sheen appeared that tested out as a toxic blue-green algae not fit to stick your toe in.

Things got worse every time they dumped the Lake. The St. Lucie was losing its resilience and every new discharge hurt worse than the last.

Back in 2000 there was hope for the battered estuary.

The Comprehensive plan for the Everglades included getting the water right in Lake Okeechobee and dramatically decreasing dumping on the coastal estuaries. It included fixing the impacts of the flood control canals in the watershed of the St. Lucie. Those inflows are not as dramatic as the Lake dumping, but they annually cause fish kills and algae blooms from too much dirty water that comes in too fast.

Today with a toxic estuary in what used to be paradise, folks are losing hope. The St. Lucie Estuary is like a punch drunk prize fighter that may be a dead prize fighter with one more punch.

Will Comprehensive Everglades Restoration start really happening in time?

Is there still hope?

How do we make it happen?

Maggy Hurchalla, August 2013

<click here to read a PDF file of "Hope for a Dying Estuary">