Sweet Poison

A father and son stand on the concrete walkway above the St. Lucie Lock & Dam. As blackish water thunders through floodgates from a deep canal into the St. Lucie River, the young boy looks up quizzically with a wrinkled nose. “What stinks so bad?” he asks. “Son, that’s the smell of death.”


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Photo: Phil Owen

The whole food chain is out of whack, and everything that depends on it, including humans.

The summer of 2013 is history. Anglers and business owners on the south-central coast of Florida will not remember it for anything positive. Headlines that will string well beyond the mullet run will include negative connotations like “algae,” “dead marine life,” “bacteria,” and “pollution.” What’s worse is that these terms are being used to describe the quality of water in what scientists call, “The most important estuaries in the country.”

In the St. Lucie River near Stuart and Port St. Lucie, the southern end of the 156-mile long Indian River Lagoon, and on the Gulf Coast in the Caloosahatchee River and Charlotte Harbor, storm water runoff from as far away as Kissimmee and Orlando has been pouring in. It’s poisoning two vital estuaries whose chief function is to serve as a nursery to countless species of game fish, shellfish, corals, sea grasses, birds and marine mammals.

As of the first week of July, and for more than two months, billions of gallons daily emptied into the coastal waters in a system never designed by Mother Nature, but by political policy and at the behest of sugarcoated cash. When the water turns ugly, it reignites the fire between those who wish to protect the state’s precious estuaries, and those who are only interested in their own fortunes.

What is happening?

For more than a generation, the waters of the St. Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon, Caloosahatchee River and Charlotte Harbor have been subject to an ominous scourge. Waters from the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee that originally flowed into the Everglades have been diverted to the coasts. The influx of billions of gallons of freshwater daily is pounding these fragile ecosystems to certain doom. The denial of that water to the Everglades has degraded that ecosystem at the same time. In fact, using the term “fresh” to describe the quality of the water reaching the estuaries is really a stretch. Much of the water is high in nitrogen and phosphorous, and when it traverses the canals that connect the interior with the coast it carries silt and muck low in oxygen, causing further damage to the saline estuaries. In many cases near Stuart and Fort Myers, important organisms that depend upon clean water are being wiped out.

The low salinity created by the fresh water is a killer. Oysters, a vital creature capable of filtering 50 gallons of water each day, are dying. The spring spat, a name for juvenile oysters, are dead. The fresh water is also killing clams, olive shells and queen conchs. The conchs, living in about the only place in Florida other than the Keys, have been thriving in Stuart for the past three years. It took water managers only two months to wipe them out.

The color and turbidity of the water is also deadly. Seagrasses protected by numerous state and federal laws are simply allowed to die from the murky water. Flats that were once lush are now bare. It is unknown whether the grass will ever grow back.

The nutrients in the water are igniting algae and bacteria blooms as well. In some places, the water resembles antifreeze. In others, it is a light brown, but with zero visibility. The algae blooms are disrupting oxygen flow, photosynthesis and feeding activity by plankton, shellfish and fish. The whole food chain is out of whack, and everything that depends on it, including humans.

Why does it matter?

Dr. Grant Gilmore was raised in Sarasota where he fell in love with the myriad of life contained in Florida waters. That passion drove him to choose marine science as a career. Now, Gilmore is considered one of the foremost marine scientists in the world. When the waters foul along the Treasure Coast, Gilmore is asked to speak to groups to help explain why this travesty needs to be stopped.

“Almost nowhere else in the world can you draw a circle on a map with a 10-mile radius and find within it 800 species of fish,” Gilmore explains. “That’s what happens within 10 miles of the St. Lucie Inlet.”

Gilmore said that the combination of natural freshwater from the uplands combined with the shallow and warm seagrass and mangrove habitat of the Indian River Lagoon, and its proximity to Florida’s continental shelf north of Jupiter and the Gulf Stream, make it ground zero for an incredible mix of marine biodiversity. “The ecosystem in the Indian River Lagoon is more diverse than tropical rainforests,” added Gilmore.

Why is this happening?

Florida is a magical place. It straddles the tropics, subtropics and temperate zones. It rains in Florida, annually from 50- to 80-inches with the majority of it between May and November. It has to go somewhere, right? Florida has a complicated hydrological makeup. Without getting too wonky, it’s pretty flat and that rain flows into lakes, ponds, marshes and rivers. In the center of the state, two parallel ridges that are aligned with the coastlines funnel rainfall between Okeechobee and Orlando into what is known as the Kissimmee River Basin. This basin is the headwaters of the Everglades more than 120 miles to its south.

Before the arrival of modern man, the slight elevation change in the land and the many naturally connected waterways that overflowed during the rainy season slowly allowed water to flow south into Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and finally Florida Bay. It took months for a drop of rain hitting the ground in Osceola County to make it to the bay, until the early 1900s that is.

In an effort to convert mosquito and alligator-infested swamps into the nation’s wintertime breadbasket, drainage efforts began. Between the early 1900s and 1965, more than 1,500 miles of canals were dug to dry out the land. The result was the creation of thousands of acres of fertile land used for winter vegetables, cattle and fruit. Over time, the majority of the land gave way to a much more profitable crop—sugar cane. Thanks to lopsided laws and backdoor deals, Florida’s sugar industry has become a cash-rich cartel at the expense of the Everglades seeing way too little water and the estuaries along the coasts getting way too much.

Discharges from the 730-sq. mi. Lake Okeechobee are deemed necessary for public safety, the Army Corps of Engineers claims. If the discharges stopped and the lake’s water level was allowed to rise, the Corps says the 143-mile long Herbert Hoover Dike that encircles the lake might fail, endangering communities along its shores. The picture painted is the disastrous post-Hurricane Katrina Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Truth is, it’s not going to happen like that at all. The dike does not hold back a wall of water, yet the Corps is spending $900 million to fix it.

The problem is Big Sugar, which refers to three main growing groups—U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. Together, they account for nearly all the land use between Pahokee and Clewiston. South Florida Water Management has been openly criticized as a branch of Big Sugar. The agency, a division of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, is supposed to be looking out for all of the user groups that depend on a smartly managed water supply—South Florida cities, recreational users, fishermen, environmentalists, Indian tribes and more. Yet, Big Sugar has the first say on where the water goes, when and how much, all in an effort to prevent damaging their cash-rich crop.

Additionally, the sugar industry receives price supports in the form of a minimum price for its crop, trade restrictions on foreign sugar, and mandated use by American sugar consumers. With that cash flow, they buy the influence of politicians—including the President—and from all political parties.

What needs to be done?
The solution will take a generation to fix if it is ever to be done. The natural flow of water from the Kissimmee River, into Lake Okeechobee, then into the Everglades needs to resume. The sugar farms need to be converted back to marshland that allows sheet flow of water. Engineering-wise, it is a nightmare and the dollars would be astronomical, but the end result is the only solution for returning the system to as close to what it was before we began farming the land.

We elect the individuals who hold the power. They must be contacted if this is ever going to change in that young child’s lifetime. Vote against politicians who accept money from Big Sugar. Write letters to remove price supports and change future farm bills to allow for a change in policy. The people of Florida have a right to know the truth, and it is time for the public to demand that Florida Legislature represent our interest and not the special interest.