The headlines were ominous, “Advisory. High bacteria levels. Avoid contact with the water. Increased risk of illness at this time.” (
)– Stuart, FL
TIMES. Only they weren’t referring to some accidental discharge or
environmental catastrophe somewhere far away, they were talking about our
beaches and estuaries, the very lifeblood of our Lizette Alvarez, NY South
Florida home. I have lived here over 20 years and spend most of my
time out on the water and have seen the devastation to the estuary year after
What is an estuary and why is it important to us? Where freshwater rivers meet oceanic waters, estuaries form. Estuaries require just the right mix of fresh water and salt water to support the sea grasses and aquatic life that thrives there. Estuaries are crucial to the ecosystem because they are a breeding ground for marine life. Our estuaries are important not only to us but to the people from all over the world that come to visit them. Visitors come to join us for bird watching, fishing, and for the beaches. Tourism is the backbone of economy and employs 1 out of every 5 people. We receive millions of visitors each year that generate billions of dollars in economic revenue.
The Everglades once covered almost 11,000 square miles of south
. Prior to 1905, water flowed down
the Kissimmee River, into Lake Okeechobee, then south through the Florida Everglades. The Everglades
are as much as 60 miles in
width, yet only six inches deep in some places. The area is home to a multitude
of bird and fish species and is the only place in the world where alligators
and crocodiles live in the same habitat.
After 1905, plans were made to drain the
to make the land suitable for agriculture and development. Large tracts of
swamp were transformed into farmland and people settled along the coast. As the
population grew, so did the need to provide flood control to the new residents
of South Florida. The result was an extensive
network of man-made canals, levees and water control structures that channel
1.7 billion gallons of water daily from the Everglades, changing the natural
characteristics of the marsh.
In 1910, a dike was constructed around the south side of
Okeechobee as part of the drainage project. Over the next several
years flooding caused by breaches in the dike killed thousands of residents.
These deaths resulted in the construction and expansion of the Herbert Hoover
Dike, almost completely surrounding the lake. Canals were dug to connect Lake
Okeechobee to the to the West and the
St Lucie River to the East. Redirection of the natural flow of water from the
south to the east and west was made with complete disregard to the
environmental consequences. Caloosahatchee
This redirected water flow has negatively impacted the mixture of fresh water and salt water putting the grasses and aquatic life at risk. The “quick fix” has been to make fresh water releases from the lake. Additionally, to protect the aging dike itself, the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been forced to release even more water from the lake. During the summer months when heavy rains cause the lake water to rise, billions of gallons of fresh water polluted by agricultural runoff are released into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river systems. The current solution of making water releases to alleviate the negative consequences caused by the redirected water flow has made problems worse.
Excessive releases of polluted water from
are made during the rainy season because water levels are too high. Smaller
water releases are also made during the dry season in an attempt to keep the
fresh and salt water mix at optimum levels. These constant water releases cause
toxic algae blooms and the sediment from them smothers grass beds where sea
life spawns. Not only are the estuaries now dependent on scheduled water
releases, but these releases are now necessary to prevent flooding and to
supply irrigation during the dry season to farming communities. The dike itself
has been long ranked among the most vulnerable in the country and a 2006 report
on the lake found it posed a “grave and imminent danger”.
The situation we find ourselves in is a result of poor planning. There is no quick or inexpensive solution. Allowing more water to move south like it’s supposed to, treating more water as it’s released into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, or fixing the Herbert Hoover Dike to allow for more overall water capacity have all been discussed. Finger pointing and politics has stopped progress. The South Florida Water Management claims they have no money because Governor Rick Scott cut their budget. Governor Scott claims they can’t fix the dike because the Federal Government is not providing the necessary funds. We can’t release water south because of the Everglades Agricultural Area which is comprised mainly of sugar cane fields. The Sugar Corporations are often blamed for stymieing efforts for a solution to further their agendas even though they are responsible for much of the agricultural runoff pollution. “Big Sugar” has also been accused of having government officials in their pocket and indeed has donated a great deal of money to super PACs to influence elections. The finger pointing must stop and collaboration must begin immediately if we are to save our beaches and the vast diversity of our estuaries.
One idea is Plan 6 which is a program that promises to create a vitally needed flow-path to let water move south from Lake Okeechobee to the
instead of to the coastal estuaries. This plan requires the acquisition of
about 50,000 acres of the 700,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area
(roughly 7%). The new acreage would be tied into existing public lands to form
the overall Plan 6 flow-way. This would result in restoring the original flow
of water into the Everglade south of Lake Okeechobee
and eliminate the need for any more water releases. Plan 6 would replace other
more costly plans that do not adequately restore the original Everglades
flow nor keep polluted water from being released in the rivers. Additionally,
Plan 6 would not require any change in infrastructure to Interstate 75 or the
Tamiami Trail to the south. Existing culverts and flow-ways for those highways
can handle the increased water flow.
Whatever the solution, one thing is sure, without intervention from citizens and government, we will lose valuable tourism, but most importantly, we will lose the vast diversity of our local estuaries. Getting involved is the only way we will save our estuaries, our local tourism and our livelihood. Contact your local legislators and demand a solution now. Without prompt action from our government and our community we stand to lose the most important things to our community. We now know what our estuaries are and what they mean to us, what caused the issues they are experiencing and how we can fix the state they are in. There are only two choices. Seek a solution that protects our beaches and estuaries or do nothing and destroy them both. The choice is ours. It’s up to us.
Please join Filmmaker Rob DeVore and me as we study the causes and possible solutions on film. When complete, this film will be used as a fundraising tool for those non-profit organizations dedication to finding and implementing solutions and restoring the natural flow of the Everglades. Check out the link below to visit our kickstarter project page and find out how you can help!