The Everglades earned the nickname “river of grass” because of the shallow water that courses through the sawgrass marshes and hammocks from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee and south to Florida Bay.
At one time the rich soil was almost completely covered by water. That all changed in the early 20th century when settlers and farmers lured by the promise of inexpensive land moved south to Florida. When they found the land covered by water they began to construct canals and dikes to drain the land for agriculture.
In 1905 Florida Gov. Napoleon Broward began an intensive effort to make the land suitable for agriculture and development by draining large areas of the Glades. This created vast tracks of farmland and stimulated the growth of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. As a result flood control was needed to protect these interests. In 1948 Congress authorized the largest water management system in the world to protect agriculture interests and create a source of drinking water to supply the rapidly growing Gold Coast. It included an extensive system of levees, canals and dams that channeled nearly two billion gallons of water to the coasts.
The subsequent loss of water changed the Everglades in a profound way impacting native animals, fish and wading birds. This loss of water and the run-off from agriculture paved the way for exotic plants to take hold and fueled the growth of algae. As a consequence the Everglades is now one half its original size.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the negative impacts of this grandiose plumbing project are having a profound (negative) effect on the estuaries on both the west and east coasts as well as Florida Bay to the south. It’s also threatening the drinking water supply of one third of Floridians. The excess water that is discharged from Lake Okeechobee is funneled via the Caloosahatchee River to Pine Island Sound and the St. Lucie River which supplies water to the Indian River Lagoon. The water, overloaded with nutrients, loses vital oxygen, is clouded and reduces the salinity of the brackish waters it enters. Worst of all the nutrients feed algae blooms that remove more oxygen from the water and prevent sunlight from reaching the sea grass meadows. These discharges have had a disastrous impact on the two estuaries killing huge areas of seagrass, tens of thousands of fish and alarming homeowners, anglers and environmentalists. The algae bloom was so bad last year it was dubbed “Mean Green 2016.”
The reduced water flow to the south is also having a negative effect on Florida Bay one of the state’s richest fisheries where increased salinity is changing the complexion of the whole ecosystem.
Everglades Restoration has had a long history of challenges but it also has passionate allies. On January 26, 2017 Senator Rob Bradley introduced Senate Bill 10 which if passed will create two reservoirs south of Lake Okeechobee that will provide 120 billion gallons of extra storage, which will drastically increase the amount of water moving through the Everglades to Florida Bay. This will also result in close to a 50% decrease in water that is released to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. The bill is supported by Senate President Joe Negron who is a resident of Stuart (situated on the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon). The bill will direct the South Florida Water Management District to find willing sellers of land suitable for the “reservoir project.” If willing sellers are not found the bill will charge the District to acquire the necessary land according to language of a contract signed in 2010 by U.S. Sugar that authorized the sale of 153,000 acres. Money to cover the states’ commitment will be provided through funds from Amendment 1 passed by voters in 2014. This bill is the most promising indication of the need for change and the support of Florida voters.
A grassroots organization, bullsugar, founded by Stuart residents is spreading the word and the Now or Neverglades message that the solution to this crisis is neither an engineering or a scientific one. They realize that it requires a political solution and that Senate Bill 10 is the best hope to address the destructive discharges and to restore clean water to the Everglades and Florida Bay. Concerned citizens are encouraged to contact their representatives to voice their support for the bill. To find out how you can help and learn more about the problem and the solution go to www.bullsugar.org.