Only two months into the New Year and already the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has started to release polluted water from Lake Okeechobee, resulting in water flowing into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, and the Indian River Lagoon, which is expected to continue over the coming weeks and months.
Millions of Floridians are affected by the releases of this polluted water. Releases from Lake Okeechobee during the 2013 rainy season killed wildlife, depressed home values, hurt tourism and threatened the drinking water supply for 8 million Floridians. Yet, since 2013, nothing has been done to address the problem. Nothing has been done to start sending Lake Okeechobee water south so that we can stop dumping polluted water into the estuaries. Today, water levels are even higher than we faced in January 2013 and we’re just one or two heavy rains away from re-living the “lost summer of 2013” disaster.
Right now, the State of Florida, through the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), has the opportunity to buy land in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) – namely, a strategic 26,100-acre area just south of Lake Okeechobee – to build a reservoir that has been congressionally authorized, and is scientifically supported and approved by state and federal governments, as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
The bottom line is simple: when water levels rise in Lake Okeechobee, there is a tremendous fear that the aging Herbert Hoover Dike may breach. Due to this concern, the only option available today is to dump billions of gallons of polluted water to the east and west, which brings toxic algae, dead fish, job loss and other detrimental impacts to the local areas and the state of Florida.
A reservoir in the EAA could store one foot of water off of Lake Okeechobee, and would not only aid in Everglades restoration, but would also reduce impacts to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, and the Indian River Lagoon, which have been severely damaged by these polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
Florida voters made this solution possible with their overwhelming support of Amendment 1, which created a dedicated revenue source for the environment over the next 20 years. The Amendment specifically identified the goal of using the money collected to “purchase land in the Everglades Agricultural Area.” And, with the 2015 Legislative in session, lawmakers are busy deciding how to spend this Amendment 1 money.
This is a historic opportunity. But, with an October 2015 deadline, the opportunity to buy the land and build a reservoir is slipping through our fingers every day. The Florida Legislature and SFWMD must take action now so that we can protect the Everglades and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. Because, if the state and the SFWMD decide not to take advantage of this opportunity to buy the land, we need to be asking what their plan is for water storage? We simply cannot afford to keep wasting water and killing fisheries; and, we do not have the option to wait until this year’s rainy season is upon us and the funds have been squandered.
Seventy-five percent of Floridians showed their love of the Everglades and Florida’s environment in November and continue to stand united. We can’t afford to play politics. Legislators and SFWMD must act now before this option is completely off the table and Florida families are left facing a 2013-like crisis every year, and the drinking water for eight million Floridians and tourists is, again, in jeopardy.
Eric Eikenberg is the CEO of the Everglades Foundation.