Stay in the know about wildlife, water quality, and ecosystems on Sanibel and Captiva Islands and in Southwest Florida

Algae, Red Tide Provide our Burning Water Moment

September 11, 2018

In 1969, a river caught on fire. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland Ohio had finally had enough. Enough industrial pollution from decades of discharges that the river started burning.  The pollution was tolerated and over looked as the cost of doing business.

But it got the attention of lawmakers and with public outcry sparked changes that addressed the causes.

You’ve heard the old adage if you don’t learn from history you are doomed to repeat it?

Well, hello Florida residents, taxpayers, visitors and elected officials; the toxic algae and nearly yearlong red tide are poisoning our waters. It is Florida’s burning water moment.

The result of rolling back water quality standards and protections, severely cutting enforcement, increased permitting of environmentally sensitive lands and wetlands, dramatically reduced environmental science staff all in the name of lessening government “intrusion” to make Florida more business friendly. How’s that working out? 

Since July, businesses have reported precipitous drops in revenue in the millions of dollars per week across all industries.  The abhorrent water quality is burning the $3 billion Lee County revenue generator that fuels our local economy  and contributes to the statewide coffers in Tallahassee where the water quality protections have been slashed.

We have two destructive tendencies:  We believe in “away” and our response in emergencies is to blame the other guy; “It’s not us, it’s the other guy.”

Away is the concept that after a big rain the flood waters in our roads and yards drains away, out of sight out of mind, its “gone.” But there is no away. Water drained away via the neighborhood storm drain or drainage canal carries tons of pollution from road runoff, yard fertilizer and pet waste, sewage and septic overflows and litter. It is drained into our canals, rivers, lakes and bays and it all flows downstream.

It may be out of sight but eventually water hits a tipping point where it can’t hide the pollution anymore; water turns a toxic green, blue and red that sucks the oxygen out of the water killing the creatures with which we share this space. We burn our quality of life and that of resident and seasonal wildlife.

It’s the other guys fault. We have to accept that we all contribute to the problem; it’s not just Lake Okeechobee. South Florida is part of an interconnected water system that has been ditched and drained to serve our needs in occupying the region. From Orlando through the Kissimmee Valley, water flows south into Lake Okeechobee.

Where it once went south into the Everglades on its way to Florida Bay, today a dike encircles the lake preventing flow south except to provide agricultural water supply though canals managed by pumps to move water. The major discharge of unwanted water is dumped west to the Caloosahatchee and east to the St Lucie.

It’s a drainage system that includes just 16 counties of south Florida that was started 138 years ago and modified significantly 70 years ago to provide flood control for a population of 1 million living in the region. Today, the population has exploded to just shy of 10.5 million people.

So, a 70-year-old infrastructure is trying to provide flood control and water supply for ten fold more paved over, impervious, developed acres of land that drain into local water bodies carrying with the water pollution from roads and parking lots, fertilized lawns,  golf courses and agriculture, and sewage.

Some treatment is required but more is needed across the urban and agricultural landscape. This isn’t unfriendly to business, toxic water is.

Legacy nutrients in Lake Okeechobee are a source as well and where the cyano bloom began. It’s from decades of ineffective action. That must change. The science is clear. We need to elect state leaders who will prioritize known solutions and implement a plan.

Improvement won’t happen fast but it won’t happen at all  if we allow our leaders to point fingers instead of taking action. Ask candidates what they will do to clean up our waters. Then vote for clean water in November.

What will future generations say when they look back at our actions during our burning water moment?

– Rae Ann Wessel is Natural Resource Policy Director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.


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