Editorial: Crisis only grows below the algae on the Caloosahatchee River

Tom Hayden
A tri-colored heron wades in an algal bloom along the wall at the Franklin Locks in Alva on Monday, June 25, 2018. An algal bloom has pushed up against the lock. Reports of algae on the river have been reported since last week. Most reports are east of the Franklin Locks. Some are worried that it might move west towards the estuary. The DEP is testing the algae later this week to see if it is toxic.

We see the massive toxic algae blooms smothering our Caloosahatchee, killing marine life, harming tourism, keeping us from swimming, fishing and boating in this once blue treasure.

But this problem runs much deeper than what we see on the surface. This crisis will not be fixed tomorrow. There are too many pieces to this complex environmental puzzle to expect a quick solution.

For the past two weeks, as the toxic blue-green algae has spread up and down the river, just about everyone has weighed in on the crisis, demanding relief from Lake Okeechobee discharges into our estuary. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency.

More:Gov. Rick Scott issues state of emergency for Lee, Martin counties following tour of algae blooms

More:Sen. Bill Nelson asks CDC to study long-term health effects of toxic algae blooms

More:Army Corps suspends Lake O releases; Protest on river decries algae issues

Everyone is pointing fingers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the massive water releases that – for now – have stopped but will soon resume. U.S. senators Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples, have called on the Army Corps and President Trump to keep the lid on the releases. The Southwest Florida legislative delegation issued two letters - one on Thursday and another Monday - asking Scott for the state of emergency and for the Army Corps to “loosen the rigid implementation of the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule." Environmentalists are screaming for action.

The University of Florida Water Institute report, published three years ago and considered the most comprehensive report on the state of Florida water, said:  "The solution is enormous increases in storage and treatment of water both north and south of the lake. Existing and currently authorized storage and treatment projects are insufficient to achieve these goals. The path forward requires significant long-term investment in the infrastructure of the South Florida hydrologic system." 

Curing this crisis must come in stages:

  • The federal government must continue to expedite funding. It has been more than a billion dollars behind in splitting the cost with the state for various water projects that provide storage and treatment of water and were part of the Central Everglades Restoration Project.
  • The timetable for reinforcement of the Herbert Hoover Dike must quicken. It is scheduled to be completed in 2022, but we can’t wait that long. Rooney has helped direct $514 million for repairs and that funding must stay in place.
  • The Caloosahatchee Reservoir project, which will hold 55 billion gallons of water, mainly from local basin runoff, needs a treatment component. Storing dirty water and then releasing dirty water solves nothing.
  • The Kissimmee River restoration project must continue in earnest. Restoring that river to its natural meandering flow and allowing flood plains there to continue to take water will slow and clean water that comes into the lake from the north.
  • Storage wells are needed north of the lake that could stop up to 40 percent of the water that flows into the lake. 
  • The $1.4 billion Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project, another important storage and treatment effort south of the lake, must receive federal approval and funding without significant delays.

Let’s deal with the algae now, because that is the crisis in front of us, but the facts are this crisis has been building for 100 years as land east of the Everglades was developed into massive residential and commercial palaces, squeezing the River of Grass, eliminating flood plains and disrupting the natural flow of water into Florida Bay. A major road, U.S. 41, became a dam keeping water from its natural destination.

Now, we know how bad the problem is because we can walk out our back door and see it, smell it. The heavy rains of May only magnified the problem and nature is fighting back because we have messed with the natural ecosystem long enough and now there is no place for the water to go. Our biggest holding tank for water, Lake Okeechobee, can’t take the load. Its banks and levies are not strong enough to hold more than 17 feet of water. When lake levels are too high, the Army Corps sends billions of gallons of water filled with pollutants, like nitrogen and phosphorous our way, or in much less quantities – down the St. Lucie River.

Sending most of the water south down the four canals that flow from Lake O doesn’t work because Everglades National Park can only take so much water before it floods and that would violate federal orders for protected wildlife species there.

The algae may clear soon, but it will be back unless federal and state officials make all of the current water projects on the books a priority. The algae is nature’s warning sign now, but we could be in for much worse without a dedicated effort to the restoration plan.

Tom Hayden, senior engagement editor at The News-Press, wrote this editorial on behalf of the editorial board.