A Catastrophe in the Everglades, and How to Fix It | Field & Stream

The Conservationist

Standing Up for Our Right to the Outdoors
Courtesy revilo82/Pixabay

A Catastrophe in the Everglades, and How to Fix It

The Place

The night is ancient here, the water still. So long as we stay in open water and away from the jungled line of mangrove and buttonwood, the mosquitoes are few. It’s just before midnight, mid-May, and cool enough to wear a sweatshirt on the Indian River Lagoon, just outside Fort Pierce, Fla. We drift in darkness on the pontoon boat, talking mostly about sight-fishing for redfish, hunting snook, cooking, and eating wahoo. Dr. Grant Gilmore—scientist, fisherman, deep-sea diver, and veteran of 10,000 nights on the saltwater—uncoils a length of rubber-coated wire and lowers two black lozenge-shaped microphones, known as hydrophones, into the water. He flips a small switch on a set of speakers. Our conversation stops abruptly. A cacophony of sound emanates from the speakers, like a thousand clocks ticking loudly at once, a continuous popping like the little firecrackers we called ladyfingers as kids. “Those are snapping shrimp,” Gilmore says. “When they get going like this, you pretty much can’t hear anything else.”

A low groaning begins. “You can tell we’re getting closer to those pilings, because you start hearing the toadfish” Gilmore says, clearly delighted, even though he’s been doing this very thing—listening to fish—since 1975, when he got the first hydrophones prototypes from the Navy. The noises get louder, and more complex. “That is the sound of a healthy seagrass bed,” he says. “So much going on; everything talking at once.” He says we should ease away to see if we can find a few seatrout, to hear what they sound like.

Marty Baum, our captain, and the Indian Riverkeeper, a job that keeps him out on the water almost every day of his life, steers us up a side channel. The noises subside a little, although new ones suddenly begin—the throaty gulping of a redfish, and a clicking that belongs to a hardhead, or saltwater catfish. Slowly, we hear it—a single line of sounds like a horse walking quickly down a road. “That is a classic spotted seatrout,” Gilmore explains. “We’ve been able to identify that sound for a long time now, and we know the males make it during spawning, but we don’t know what it means, or how the females react to it, or what role it plays. We only know that we can identify healthy seagrass beds, and healthy spawning habitat, when we hear it.”

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The Indian River Lagoon.


Researchers now have a clear way to understand how water quality affects spawning intensity, Gilmore adds. With the hydrophones, you can hear the healthy seagrass beds, and you can hear how the fish are affected by changes in salinity, or too much freshwater during spawning. For instance, when water is discharged from Lake Okeechobee, Gilmore says, the Hell Gate channel, a major spawning area on the St. Lucie River west of Sewall’s Point, Fla., just gets very quiet. The hydrophones can evaluate the health of oyster beds, too, says Gilmore, because a healthy bed has so much noise. “As soon as something goes wrong, the noise level falls off,” he says.

We turn and head back for the main grass beds. The seatrout noises rise, until what we’re hearing sounds like a herd of buffalo running somewhere down there in the Indian River Lagoon, accompanied by a thousand other creatures muttering, talking, bellowing, and grunting—a bounty and mystery beyond our fathoming in the wild country grassland.

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Chris Maroney and his wife, Noelle, are onboard with Baum, Gilmore, and me. Maroney invited me on this trip tonight, to hear the symphonies of life that once resounded in his own fishing country, just south of here, but have now been mostly silenced by what he and thousands of other Floridians say is an unprecedented storm of governmental and industrial malfeasance. Maroney is an entrepreneur based in the town of Stuart; a hardcore light-tackle fisherman; and the co-founder of Bullsugar, a water-quality group formed here in South Florida in response to the amount of filthy, nutrient-saturated water being dumped into the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon—as well as into the Caloosahatchee River to the west—from Lake Okeechobee during rainy years. The discharges serve to lower the level of the dammed lake and protect the vast expanses of sugarcane to the south. The name Bullsugar is a polite variation of the better-known, and more colorful, term, and a dig at the giant Florida sugar industry that, in many ways, lies at the center of the conflicts over water here. Those discharges of nutrient-saturated lake water have caused explosive blooms of poisonous blue-green algae that have smothered parts of the Indian River Lagoon in Stuart and in other communities along the St. Lucie River, killing fish, destroying the seagrass beds that are the basis of the fishery, shutting down beaches, and ruining property values. The algae blooms reached disaster levels in 2016, eclipsing what Floridians have called “the lost summer of 2013,” when discharges of polluted water from Lake O—local shorthand for Lake Okeechobee—and the resulting toxic blooms hammered the local economy and the fish and oysters on which it is based. The blooms have appeared every rainy year—for years, and if 2016 was the worst, locals say, well, we probably haven’t seen anything yet. There is one crystal-clear solution for stopping the algae blooms: Stop the discharges from Lake Okeechobee and let at least some of the water go south as it did for a millennia, and would thus restore the Everglades, the Biscayne Aquifer, and Florida Bay. But stopping the Lake Okeechobee discharges runs up against some powerful and well-heeled political interests here in central Florida. The state’s political leaders have largely chosen to do nothing to fix the problem, even as the algae blooms reach crisis levels, as billions of dollars’ worth of real estate is fouled, as an aquifer that serves more than 8 million people declines, as Everglades National Park becomes ever drier, and as the salinity levels in Florida Bay skyrocket.

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Algae blooms, in the summer of 2016.


What was once the most diverse fishery in the U.S. is dying fast—flounder, redfish, snook, spotted seatrout, and everything else down to the lowly mullet and pinfish that underpin the entire food chain and supports some of America’s most spectacular sportfishing. Since beginning his research here in the early 1970s, Dr. Gilmore has identified more than 800 species of fish within 10 miles of the St. Lucie Inlet, with 400 of those found in the Indian River Lagoon. His studies have shown that an acre of healthy seagrass can support as many as 10,000 species of marine life. But the seagrass has been completely eradicated throughout much of the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon, owing to discharges of black nutrient-laden water from Lake O, an increasing load of nutrients from urban sewage and stormwater runoff, and the smothering algae blooms these pollutants cause. In recent years, an estimated 47,000 acres of seagrass have disappeared. What has replaced one of the most vibrant and productive systems on the planet? Locals call it black mayonnaise, a viscous slime reeking of hydrogen sulfide, and seemingly devoid of life.

I have come to Florida to explore how and why the discharges keep happening, and what might be done to fix the water issues here, before the St. Lucie, and the Indian River Lagoon, are lost forever. There’s a pervasive feeling among the dozens of people I’ve met that what we’re seeing is not a simple case of extensive water pollution coupled with an out-of-touch government. The feeling is, instead, that the failures here—the loss of fisheries, the economic losses, the health risks, the pollution of private properties whether humble or grand—stem from something even more disturbing: a near-complete failure of representative governance.

 

The St. Lucie River

The St. Lucie River.

Courtesy Gary Lopater

The Problem

It is a little after 9 a.m., and the sun is high enough to draw the big snook into the shade of the docks along the St. Lucie River, and what a system of docks it is. A shirtless man with a surfer’s tan is kicked back on the deck of a yacht. A mansion stands beyond, on high ground, a quiet multistory palace of open-air rooms and verandahs. The house is only one of dozens I can see along the river, where big pleasure boats cruise by, bound for the St. Lucie Inlet, and the open Atlantic. It seems to me an unlikely place, an unlikely class of people, to be putting up with one of America’s most extreme cases of deliberate and avoidable water pollution. But these homeowners are, by and large, not yet fighting alongside other locals who know and love and use the place year-round. “So many of the people who own these houses only live here in the winters,” says Mike Conner, an inshore fishing guide since 1986, a former writer and editor for Florida Sportsman, and the director of angler outreach for Bullsugar. We have been out, running the river in Conner’s guide skiff, since first light. “The discharges from Lake Okeechobee aren’t happening then. Most of them don’t have to live through the toxic algae blooms in the summer. They know something is badly wrong, but it’s not their top priority.”

Conner eases the skiff up near the dock, and we both cast beneath it. “It is such a luxury to actually be fishing and not just guiding,” he says to me, expertly skipping his DOA shrimp deep into the striped shade. I haven’t thrown precision casts with a baitcaster in a year or so, and mine hits the sun-shadow line, not good enough. A mighty swirl and flush appears under the dock, and Conner rears back hard and sets the hook on a 5-pound snook, the silver on its sides glittering as it rushes out into the sunlight, the stark lateral line deep black and perfectly geometric. I’ve got a lot of experience on the salt, but this is the first snook I’ve ever seen, and I’m as excited as I have ever been in my fishing life. Too excited, it turns out; I flub casts and fling DOAs onto docks. Conner takes another three fish, and loses a monster to a barnacle-encrusted piling. I end the morning with a jack—hard-fighting and rowdy—but a jack nontheless.

We pull into a cove in front of another beautiful yard and home, and Conner puts down the Power-Pole, a shallow-water anchor that looks like a stinger. He lets it sink into the soft bottom, and then pushes a lever forward to bring it back up. An oozing black scum covers the stinger. “That’s the black mayonnaise,” Conner says. “It’s what we have instead of clean white sand, fish, and miles of seagrass beds.” He explains that the snook we’re after were born and grew up in the river. “They can live through a lot without leaving. And they are about all that is left of this fishery.”

Rufus Wakeman is another local fishing guide and the owner of the River Palm Fish Camp in Jensen Beach. He has been fighting for clean water on the St. Lucie and on the Lagoon for almost 30 years. “It used to be that anywhere you went the seagrass was so tall and thick that wading through it was like a fairy tale, a storybook opening up in front of you, every kind of fish, every kind of creature,” he told me, as we sat outside the River Palm, located at the epicenter of the 2016 algae bloom. “You’d see snook busting out, sea trout chasing mullet all over the place, tarpon rolling. Nobody who sees it now could even imagine how it was. We took it for granted, I guess. And for the past 30 years the discharges have been killing it off, until now, I don’t know how long it would take to get any of it back. Or if we can.”

What are the discharges? In short, they are polluted waters from agriculture runoff from the north released from Lake O’s Herbert Hoover Dike, to control flooding in the sugar fields to the south. These discharges flow into the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon, forming the massive algae blooms that flower here each summer. But to really understand the issue here, you have to go back in time, to a wild Florida, and make sense of the efforts at land-taming and subjugation that took place here on a massive scale. That taming involved a devil’s bargain, potentially sacrificing the future of an entire region for what must have seemed, even at the time, a pretty far-fetched idea.

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Water discharged from Lake Okeechobee overwhelming the St. Lucie River, in Sept. 2017.


For a millennia, the mighty Kissimmee River twisted south through central Florida, losing itself here and there in oxbows and swamps teeming with black bass and shellcrackers, booming with gators. From the headwaters around Lake Tohopekaliga, the vast and profoundly complex river system flowed slowly southward to Lake Okeechobee, a 730-square mile behemoth—the seventh largest body of freshwater in the U.S.—with an average depth of only 9 feet, making it one of the largest and richest wetlands of the world. At the time, Lake O, too, was a moving body of water, and in rainy seasons it filled to its southern brim and the overflowing waters ran south into the Everglades, feeding what the writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas called a “river of grass.” Through that grass, a sheet of water—in places 60 miles wide, in places as shallow as 6 inches—moved across 11,000 square miles of wilderness. All that water flowed for just over 100 miles from Lake O to Florida Bay. This is the river that made the Everglades. This is the river that created the Biscayne Aquifer, which supplies the drinking water for about 8 million people and counting. This is the river that created what has been for generations one of the world’s greatest shallow-saltwater sport and commercial fisheries.

And now it’s pretty much gone.

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Map of historical flows.


South Florida has a wild history that rivals that of any frontier, anywhere. Like the early mountain men of the West and the Rocky Mountains, the first white explorers and settlers of the late 19th century lived off the land, reveling in the freedom of what was one of the world’s powerhouses of fishing and hunting and gathering. As with all frontiers, though, the swampers and the hunters and adventurers, known as “gladesmen,” gave way to the wild-eyed visionaries of the early 20th century, men of the industrial age, determined to hammer the world into a new shape, and make a fortune in the process. As the land was dried and tamed, a more sedate brand of settlers, one accustomed to a controlled natural environment, and lots of help from the government in accomplishing that control, poured in.

By the 1890s huge projects were underway to drain the Everglades and open the region up for additional agriculture and settlement. Hamilton Disston, a businessman from Philadelphia, created the first major canal from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River on Florida’s Gulf coast side, opening the interior to shipping from the sea. Through the early 1900s, the Everglades Drainage District worked to build canals and drain the river of grass from east and west, to dry out the rich mucklands for farming. Of paramount importance was blocking the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee, and small levees were built to accomplish that goal. But Florida, then as now, was not easily subdued. Hurricanes in the 1920s caused floods that breached the primitive levees on the south end of Lake O, and killed more than 3,000 people. Florida asked the federal government for relief and help to keep such destructive flooding from happening again.

In response, in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Herbert Hoover Dike, on the south end of Lake O. As flooding continued to the north, land developers and farmers there pressured the state and federal government for the same kind of protection for their lands, so the dike kept being expanded, until it reached, by the 1960s, an incredible 143 miles of wall, with an average height of 30 feet. The dike—which initially cost American taxpayers about $165 million—almost completely closes in the lake, leaving only one naturally flowing waterway, called Fisheating Creek. No other natural flows of water are left; all the remaining flows are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. The Herbert Hoover Dike is now 80 years old, and still blocks the flow of water to the Everglades, to the Biscayne Aquifer, and to Florida Bay. Lake O now overflows with polluted water each rainy year. Pummeled by year after year of Florida weather and assaulted by a natural system that it has been, basically, plugged up, the dike is in rough shape, even though taxpayers have bankrolled $870 million in repairs since in 2000.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Herbert Hoover Dike will need much more taxpayer money if the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA)—a 700,000-acre area of extremely productive agricultural land, south of the dike—is to remain viable. And just how much money is needed to maintain the dike? Early estimates predict taxpayers will need to shuck out about $1.5 billion over the next few years. The project is slated to be one of the most expensive that the Army Corps of Engineers has ever undertaken. What’s more, none of that money will go toward addressing the levels of pollution in Lake O, or what that pollution causes—the toxic algae, known as cyanobacteria, blooms that, in 2016, covered a record 239 square miles of the lake’s surface, according to NASA.

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The algae bloom of 2016.


The Everglades Agricultural Area was created in 1948, after Congress appropriated $16,300,000 to drain 470,000 acres of swamp waters below Lake 0, to make them suitable for farming. The plan worked, at least in the short term, and the EAA grew and grew and grew, to the benefit of the sugar companies who owned much of the land within it. The EAA currently encompasses 700,000 acres, about 500,000 of which are solely devoted to sugarcane and the production of sugar. In 1948, Congress also authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the Kissimmee River, to keep it from flooding land and crops in the central Florida basin. Subsequently, between 1960 and 1971, the Corps turned the 103-mile-long river, with a floodplain some 3 miles across, into a ditch, known as the C-38 Canal, that firehosed floodwaters 56 miles south, straight into Lake O. Water that took an estimated seven months to reach Lake O now got there in days. As the farmers and ranchers and land developers swarmed into the newly dried lands provided by the Corps, and taxpayers, pesticides, fertilizers, and other nutrient-rich runoff poured into the C-38 Canal and straight into Lake O, causing it to become extremely polluted. Dramatic blooms of toxic blue-green algae now appear in the lake, and no one will dispute that it is in decline.

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Water in Lake O is managed according to the needs of the EAA, and the sugar industry that dominates it. The only solution to high water threatening to flood the EAA and ruin crops is to open the massive floodgates in the Herbert Hoover Dike and let the water—extremely polluted water, bearing mats of toxic blue-green algae—go west in the S-70 Canal, down to the Caloosahatchee River, and into Pine Island Sound; as well as east, down the C-44 Canal and straight into the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon.

These discharges happen every time Florida has a particularly rainy year, and it has been going on for decades; the water pollution here was a big story in 2005, and on and on, through what would seem to be the crisis year, the summer of 2016. Only the drought years—when no water needed to be discharged from Lake O—have been safe. The St. Lucie and the Indian River Lagoon are dying from polluted water discharged from Lake O to maintain sugar farming conditions in the EAA. Beaches are closed when the discharges result in toxic algae blooms along the coast. The Caloosahatchee River and Pine Island Sound suffer from pollution from the discharges during wet years, and a lack of freshwater during dry years, because it is all impounded in Lake O, managed for a single industry, an industry that would almost certainly not exist in South Florida without extensive and unique government protections from imports (a protection that has drawn the ire of the Cato Institute and other conservative groups for years now). The Biscayne Aquifer is drying out, with saltwater intrusion threatening the drinking water supplies and future economic development for millions of Floridians. Everglades National Park has been in crisis from lack of water, or from polluted waters draining from the EAA, for decades now. Florida Bay is starved for the freshwater that once flowed out of the Everglades; its salinity is at twice the normal levels, and its seagrass beds are dying off, rotting in huge mats, sucking the oxygen from the water. “It’s basically a permanent man-made drought, created by the drainage and development patterns to the north in the Everglades,” Robert Johnson, director of the National Park Service’s South Florida Natural Resources Center, told the Washington Post in 2016.

All this is fixable.

“There have been so many stories told, so many stories about this written, and yet it just goes on and on,” Chris Maroney, of Bullsugar, tells me, as we sit at sunset on the dock at his home on the St. Lucie. But there is one true story that cuts through to the core, he says. “There are two versions of Florida’s future here. I am pretty sure that most Americans would choose a restored Everglades, and huge, biodiverse rivers and estuaries that feed a prosperous economy, in a place where everybody wants to live.” The other version, he says, is what we have now. “I’d say that 99 percent of Americans would choose to fix this. And so, in a sense, it’s about more than the St. Lucie, or the Everglades, or Florida Bay. It is a test of our country, and whether we have a democratic republic, or whether we will have to concede that we’re going to accept something much less than that.” Maroney leans forward in his chair. “The old guys who worked on this for the past decades felt like they lost. But the rest of us now have taken what they did, and we are running. We’re going to win.”

 

The Solution

The tropical beauty of South Florida unfolds beneath the wings of the Cessna 340 as we bank out over the Atlantic beaches, the ocean the color of a bluebird’s wing, the white beaches below crowded with people out enjoying the May sun and surf. We level out, heading almost perfectly southwest, and leave the ocean, the Indian River Lagoon, and the St. Lucie River behind, flying over the gun-barrel-straight C-44 Canal, the same canal that carries polluted Lake Okeechobee water to the coast during rainy years. Then Lake Okeechobee appears, a huge blackwater expanse, walled-in by the Herbert Hoover Dike, control structures and floodgates leading to more canals, more straight lines, more grids, all the massive infrastructure required to turn what was once the Everglades into the flat green monoculture of square miles of sugarcane. Oral surgeon Ed Lippisch, of the Stuart, Fla.,-area, is our pilot, and this is his airplane. His wife, Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch—the former mayor of Sewall’s Point, Fla., a resident since 1952, and a local historian and chronicler—is our guide. “Things have reached a crisis level,” Jacqui says, through our headsets. “But the whole time we’ve been setting up this wholly managed system—the canals, the dikes, the settling basins, the clearing of all this land—we, the people here, have known for decades that this would ruin the future of South Florida. There were people in our grandparents’ day who knew this wasn’t going to work.” Jacqui gave me a copy of the book Stuart on the St. Lucie, written by her mother, historian Sandra Thurlow, which, along with being a fascinating look back at the settlement of this part of Florida, documents the collapse of local sport and commercial fishing after the 1923 opening of a canal between Lake O and the St. Lucie River. That canal would later be called the C-44, which is the source of the discharges that are destroying the river now.

Inside the EAA, the problem is usually too much water, even with the Herbert Hoover Dike’s walling off Lake O. Although some winter vegetables are grown here, more than 500,000 acres of the EAA are devoted solely to sugar production, and most of that production is controlled by the two mega-companies, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals. It is little wonder that water management for farming is tough here; the EAA sits on drained lands that once made up 27 percent of the Everglades. Part of the land we are flying over was once a seasonally-flooded forest of custard apple trees (anona glabra), at least 32,000 acres in extent. Like all the rest of the native vegetation here, it has been gone for almost a century. “All of that was torn out, and the land drained, to farm what’s called the custard apple muck,” Jacqui explains. “With it went the filtration system for any water that was flowing south.”

Getting rid of the excess water in the EAA so that the sugar can grow is a major part of the engineering boondoggles here. Like the water in Lake O, runoff from the EAA, unfiltered by wetlands or other buffers, is too polluted to simply shunt off, unfiltered, south to the dried-out Everglades, although that is what happened for many years. (The Everglades Protection Act of 1994 forced farming corporations in the EAA to start cleaning up some of their effluents; success has been mixed.) But even if the water were crystal clear and clean, simply dumping it into the Everglades to get rid of it has proved to be disastrous. During extremely rainy years, so much water has to be removed from the farms that it becomes a wholly unnatural flood that drowns wildlife and native trees and other plants in Everglades National Park.

Wilder and wilder schemes have emerged from engineers and farming corporations in the EAA to deal with the “excess” water, including taking the polluted water and injecting it deep into the earth, a solution, in a state that suffers increasingly common droughts, that even the Corps of Engineers has rejected. Another strategy for removing excess water from the fields has been “backpumping” the water into the already-polluted Lake O, through the canals and pumps. This solution has been extremely controversial for decades, since the pumped water contains high levels of phosphorus and other agricultural wastes. Although it was being done as recently as 2016, backpumping may also violate the Clean Water Act. It may be illegal. Or it may not. It depends on whom you ask, and where their loyalties lie. Which is a huge problem with this whole story. I don’t think I have, in 20 years of reporting, encountered a story like this one, where the effects of non-action—extraordinary water pollution events on two coasts, drying out, flooding, and polluting a National Park, a dwindling aquifer upon which huge cities and future development depends, and the destruction of the enormous Florida Bay—are so very clear.

And where the solution is so very clear, with thousands of people knowing exactly what it would take to fix it, with groups advocating for the fix, with scientists explaining it, with plans for the fix dating back to the 1950s, with clear plans dating back to 1981, with reams of documents and piles of studies that all add up to the same thing: Long ago, we used public money to block off one of the greatest river systems and wetlands systems on the planet. We’ve been paying and paying ever since, and even though we all know exactly how to fix the whole situation, we have not been able to do so, because a handful of well-connected interests won’t budge. And budge is all it would take, because nobody, not even the fiercest manatee-hugger in all South Florida, has ever suggested that the EAA should be done away with.

All anybody has ever said, with complete scientific consensus here, is that we must establish a flow way through the EAA from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, a large enough flow way that will be planted with enough native wetlands vegetation, such as sawgrass, to slow the water down and draw away the agricultural poisons that are at the root of so much of the destruction of these water resources and all that depend on them.

Until we do that, we will continue to shell out billions of dollars in taxpayer cash, and we’ll continue to lose. One plan after another to create an adequate flow way has risen, been debated, and perished. Plan 6 dominated the South Florida news in the first half of the 1990s. The Corps of Engineers has studied and re-studied the solutions, over and over again. Governor Jeb Bush, in 1999, called the destruction of the Everglades and the water-quality problems associated with it, “The greatest environmental challenge facing Florida,” and proposed a plan called Acceler8, a (probably too) modest 17,000-acre-water-storage project designed to use wetland plants to clean the polluted water from the EAA and get it started flowing southward, by purchasing some sugar-company lands. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, a recurring theme in the Everglades saga,” Katrina Elsken wrote last January in the Okeechobee Times. “And it might have worked. But as often happens with Everglades projects, not all environmentalists agreed on the best course of action. And then politics got in the way.”

As fishing guide Rufus Wakeman told me in May, “The whole situation has been political madness.”

In 2008, Florida Governor Charlie Crist came up with a much more ambitious plan: buy 187,000 acres of sugar land to create what his administration called “The River of Grass Plan.” At first, it seemed that U.S. Sugar wanted to sell the land, for $1.7 billion. But Crist’s River of Grass plan ran headlong into the economic crash of 2008, and died. Dry years through 2012 allowed many Floridians to forget about the problems, even as the Everglades themselves dried out, and salinities in Florida Bay doubled, killing off seagrass and ruining fisheries. The discharges of polluted water from Lake O weren’t happening, the blue-green algae wasn’t closing beaches on the coasts. Until the rains came back, and the 2013 and 2016 pollution disasters reminded everybody of what was and has been happening, for decades to South Florida’s water.

The latest? In the wake of the blue-green algae disasters of 2016, the state of Florida planned to buy 60,000 acres of EAA lands to create storage and cleaning wetlands reservoirs. But—dismissing the pleas and demands of the Floridians who were suffering from the pollution events, ignoring the science—political fervor cooled and faded away as the sugar industry made its opposition to the project clear. The sugar industry, known to one and all in Florida as Big Sugar, would not budge. Instead, the sugar industry went on the offensive, waging an extraordinary campaign of lobbying, advertising, and public relations, even claiming that because the pollution was in Lake Okeechobee, north of the EAA, they were not responsible for any of it. The claims and counterclaims grew to epic proportions. At one point, claims were even made that the problem of the pollution in the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon was due to local runoff and septic tanks (which are a problem) rather than the 200 billion gallons of polluted Lake O water dumped into the St. Lucie in 2016, or the 136.1 billion gallons dumped in “the lost summer” of 2013.

Florida Senate President Joe Negron is from Stuart, Fla., and he knew, no matter the political cost, something had to be done. In January 2017, Negron supported SB10, a modest proposal to create water-storage reservoirs and pollution-treatment wetlands on existing state lands and some leased lands south of Lake O. No exact acreage for the new reservoir has been established yet, so supporters of the plan are still trying to determine what we will get, Dawn Shirreffs of the Everglades Foundation told me in a recent phone interview. “It’s a smaller footprint than what was planned before, but there is substantial potential for water storage—240,000 acre-feet. The water will have to be treated, because it is too polluted to go straight into the Everglades, but it’s not like a bucket, where you just have 240,000 acre-feet and done; it’s a bucket with a hole in it, once it is established, because it will be continually seeping water away to the south.” Is it enough to stop the discharges of polluted water down the Caloosahatchee and into the St. Lucie? “It can help,” said Shirreffs. “It won’t eliminate the discharges, but it can help.”

Shirreffs emphasized that nothing was settled. “We’re not done yet.”

For what it’s worth, the sugar industry has spoken out about some of the issues at hand. U.S. Sugar, for one, says, that the “radicals” blaming the company for systemic problems in South Florida, resulting from more than 100 years of development, is “ridiculous.” In a document titled “It’s Time to Set the Record Straight on the Lake Okeechobee Discharges,” the company says it shares the frustration over the Lake O discharges—and blames them on the Army Corps of Engineers. “U.S. Sugar is part of the solution, not the problem,” it states. Yet the Miami Herald reports that, from 1994 to 2016, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals contributed $57.8 million to state and local political campaigns, leading to a “softening” of rules and regulations.

For my part, after the past two months of being immersed in this subject, I believe that someday soon, a real and substantial flow way will become a reality. There is too much at stake for it to be otherwise. The situation is too well understood. But, as was pointed out to me many times in Florida, time may be running out. The population of South Florida is among the fastest growing in the U.S. (Some estimates predict 15 million more people in the region in coming decades.) Development is already close to the EAA, making those lands, even as the soil subsides and the growing capacity falls, more valuable than ever. It’s clear to anyone who has traveled the world that many countries are in environmental freefall—ruined rivers, fishless bays and oceans, sewage in the streets, polluted aquifers, sprawling cities with vast waterless slums and meaningless politics. We always planned to be different here, but the facts of this situation suggest that we may not be as different as we once believed we were.

Nobody seems to know. Nobody that I spoke with, that I fished or traveled with, seems to be able to adequately explain why we are letting this happen, here in the United States of America.

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