Will help come in time?

The St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon are in crisis.

We’ve had dirty water, dead oysters, and sick fish in a once beautiful estuary. Now we have a bright green slime that’s not safe to touch.

There is a plan to do something about it, but people are tired of plans. “Tired of” doesn’t begin to speak to the rage at watching the estuary die.

The Indian River Lagoon component of the Everglades Plan starts by stating that the St. Lucie Estuary will be irrevocably destroyed if the current water management strategy isn’t changed.

The IRL Plan was finalized by the Corps of Engineers in 2004 and authorized by Congress in 2007. We need to get ‘r done, but it’s not happening.

The Plan calls for building a reservoir and a stormwater treatment area on the St. Lucie Canal and other flood control canals to keep massive slugs of dirty water from the watershed from joining the disastrous discharges from Lake Okeechobee that are killing the estuary. It calls for restoring large Natural Areas to recreate the slow clean flow of runoff that made the estuary work.

Congress is responsible for funding the structures that make the plan work. The state’s job is to buy the land that’s needed. It’s a 50/50 deal on cost.

Martin County is a small county on the east coast of Florida with only 146,000 residents. Those taxpayers have donated over $48 million dollars to the state’s IRL land buying effort – more than any county in crowded South Florida. They spent $25 million more on buying land for the Loxahatchee River/ North Palm Beach part of CERP.There is a lot left to do. You can’t make the improvements to get the water right until you own the land.

The last time the state bought land in Martin County was in May of 2008. Rewarding local initiative has not been a priority.

This year the Governor decreed that the state can’t ramp up its land purchases until it sells “surplus land”. We’re faced with the ridiculous situation where the state is spending time and money on a huge effort to decide if they should sell the land they bought for restoration in order to buy land for restoration.

We have the land necessary for the reservoir on the St. Lucie Canal because Martin County kicked in $26 million dollars to the purchase. Design is complete. The site has been cleared. Money for construction won’t come until the deadlocked Congress passes a Water Resources Bill and funds it.

The land that was purchased for the Allapattah Natural Area is already working. In parts of it, through the efforts of the South Florida Water Management District, the dry pasture has been turned back into wetlands, the wading birds have come back, and the dirty runoff through the C23 canal has been reduced.

But that is only part of the puzzle. The daunting CHALLENGE of the comprehensive restoration is that one piece of the puzzle won’t fix the problem – for the St. Lucie Estuary, for the Everglades, or for the Greater Everglades Ecosystem that stretches from Mickey Mouse in Central Florida through the coral reefs on the Florida Keys.

Good things are beginning to happen, but they are not happening fast enough. The one mile bridge on the Tamiami Trail is complete. Water is flowing freely south under the road that has dammed it up since the 1920s. The Plan calls for five more miles of bridges so we can send water from Lake Okeechobee south to Everglades National Park instead of killing the Lake and the coastal estuaries. Congress needs to fund those bridges.

The Central Everglades Plan to take out levees and move water south to flow under the bridges is hung up in red tape. If it is not finalized by December, the plan will not be part of the Water Resources Development Bill that Congress is set to pass. Then it will be seven more years before the Plan is authorized – much less built. We can’t wait.

There are no easy fixes. We can’t close the locks and let the Lake Okeechobee dike break. We can’t pick one part of the restoration plan and declare victory. We can’t depend on stopgap solutions that put off the larger restoration to try out untested ideas that costs money and time and are just a drop in the bucket in terms of saving the estuary.

The state needs to buy land. They need to buy land now. They owe Martin County for getting the ball rolling and they need to finish the job of acquiring the necessary land for the Indian River Lagoon component of CERP. They need to show other local governments that you get rewarded for being part of the solution instead of punished.

The Water Management District needs to accept sponsorship of the Central Everglades Plan and make sure it gets approved on time. It’s our Everglades. It’s our estuary. If taxpayers around the country are willing to pay half the cost of restoration, we should be doing our share.

Congress needs to pass the Water Resources Act and fund construction of the C44 reservoir on the St. Lucie Canal and authorize the Central Everglades Plan.

But that’s not enough. Going forward with a grand plan to save the estuary after it is irrevocably destroyed won’t bring it back.

We need to go forward with that grand plan, but we can’t sit by and let an estuary of national significance die while we get the water right for the larger Everglades Ecosystem.

It’s not an easy problem to fix. When heavy rains raise the Lake levels so that the dike isn’t safe, you need to get rid of 467,000 acre feet of water to lower Lake levels by just one foot.

Water users want water saved for the dry season because it doesn’t rain enough then to meet their needs. Then in the summer time, when it rains, they want the water sent somewhere else.

Lake Okeechobee is kept too full so water users can have all they want. The huge sugar cane fields south of the Lake are pumped dry in the rainy season in order to to provide optimal growing conditions.

While we move ahead- and move ahead faster – on restoration solutions, we need to change how we manage the water. We need to do it now. Everyone can’t have all the water they want, then dump it out the estuary when they don’t want it.

The last time the Lake schedule was reviewed it was Big Sugar vs. a little dying estuary. We lost.

This time it is Big Sugar vs. an estuary of National Significance that is about to become permanently dead.

We can’t afford to lose.

If we keep on going like we’ve been going, the estuary will die; then the dike repairs will be finished; then more water use will be permitted; then the Lake will be kept at 18ft to meet their needs; then they will have to dump it again because the Lake is too full.

There are solutions. They won’t fix it. We need full restoration for that. They might keep us on life support.

  • Find practical and immediate ways to slow down and clean up water coming into the Lake from the North.

  • Put a moratorium on water use permits for Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Canal. Retire old permits. Do not automatically renew permits.

  • Use state land in the Everglades Agricultural Area for shallow storage of water, not growing cane. Don’t wait for the big reservoirs of the future. Do it now. That way there is less water demand and less drainage demand. The state has a contract to buy 46,800 acres of land from U.S. Sugar for a reasonable price. The contract will run out if they don’t do it now.

  • Invoke emergency rules on water use permits. We are in a crisis. Water users can’t have all the water they want whenever they want it.

  • Change the Lake storage schedule to minimize discharges, not to protect existing water users.

  • Get serious about water quality standards. The current discharges are more damaging because they are dirtier.

These are all things the State of Florida can do.


Maggy Hurchalla

August, 2013