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 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan starts by stating that the St. Lucie will be irrevocably destroyed if the current water management strategy isn’t changed. The plan was finalized by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2004 and authorized by Congress in 2007. We need to Git-R-Done, but it’s not happening.
The plan calls for building a reservoir and a stormwater treatment area on the St. Lucie Canal 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 building the structures that make the plan work. The state’s job is to buy the land. It’s a 50/50 deal on cost.
Martin County has only 146,000 residents. Those taxpayers have donated over $48 million to the Indian River Lagoon – more than any county South Florida. There is a lot left to do. 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 Gov. Rick Scott decreed that the state can’t ramp up its land purchases until it sells “surplus land.” We’re faced with the ridiculous situation in which the state is spending time and money on a huge effort to decide if it should sell the land it 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. Design is complete. The site has been cleared. Money for construction won’t come until the deadlocked Congress passes a water resources bill.
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 C-23 canal has been reduced.
Good things are beginning to happen, but they are not happening fast enough for the Everglades ecosystem that stretches from central Florida to Florida Bay. The one-mile bridge on the Tamiami Trail is complete, and water is flowing freely south under the road that had 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 provide money for those bridges.
The Central Everglades Planning Project, to take out levees and move water south to flow under the bridges, had been hung up at the water management district. The district board finally approved responsibility for the state’s share last week. Now, the plan must be authorized this year by Congress in the same Water Resources Development Act.
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 try out untested ideas that cost money and time.
The state needs to buy land. Now. The state owes Martin County. The state needs to show other local governments that you get rewarded for being part of the solution instead of punished.
Much as we need to go forward with the grand plan, we can’t sit by and let an estuary of national significance die while we get the water right for the larger Everglades ecosystem. When heavy rains raise lake levels to where the dike isn’t safe, you need to get rid of 467,000 acre feet of water to lower the lake by just one foot.
Water users want water saved for the dry season, because it doesn’t rain enough then to meet their needs. In the summertime, when it rains, they want the water sent somewhere else.
To give water users all they want, Lake Okeechobee is kept too full. The huge sugar cane fields south of the lake are pumped dry in the rainy season in order to provide optimal growing conditions.
While we move ahead on restoration solutions, we need to change how we manage the water. 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 level schedule was reviewed, it was Big Sugar vs. a little dying estuary. We lost. This time, it is Big Sugar vs. a government-designated Estuary of National Significance that is about to die. We can’t afford to lose.
We must find practical and immediate ways to slow down water coming into the lake from the north. We must put a moratorium on water use permits for Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Canal. We must retire old permits and not automatically renew permits.
We must use state land in the Everglades Agricultural Area for shallow storage of water, not growing sugar cane. There would be less water demand and less drainage demand. We must change the lake storage schedule to minimize discharges. We must get serious about water quality standards. The current discharges are more damaging because they are dirtier.
These are all things the state can do.
Maggy Hurchalla is a former Martin County commissioner.