It’s happening again, and it’s bad. Billions of gallons of foul brown water are being flushed into two South Florida rivers to lower Lake Okeechobee and protect the Herbert Hoover Dike during hurricane season.
Two lovely estuary systems, the Caloosahatchee River in Southwest Florida and the St. Lucie in the Southeast, are being assaulted by unwelcome pollution.
These two systems have suffered inundations before, of course, but there is a solution that could eventually give these rivers a respite.
It’s a costly solution, to be sure, but then so is every remedy to clean up and restore the Everglades, the state’s magnificent River of Grass. Lake Okeechobee should drain south into the Glades, but it’s so polluted by agriculture and urban runoff — phosphorous, nitrogen and other poisons — that it would literally be a state crime to send the water directly south.
To its credit, the state built a billion-dollar network of marshes to clean lake runoff before sending it southward, but even at that, there still isn’t enough storage capacity to contain so much spillover.
So instead, the U.S. Corps of Engineers must divert the water east and west when the lake level rises to flood stage. July’s record rainfall forced the Corps to open the gates. Pictures of nasty brown water gushing into the two rivers would make anybody cringe.
The solution is an ambitious $2.2 billion draft plan being negotiated by the Corps and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that would clean up some lake water and restore historic water flows to the Central Everglades. The negotiations are supposed to wrap up any day now, which is good news. The plan must be formalized in time to be included for authorization in a congressional civil-works bill set to be voted on this year. If the plan isn’t completed and sent to Congress now, years could pass before presenting it again. So the project must be done this year, period.
The River Coalition — civic, environmental and business groups that formed after a 1998 inundation in the St. Lucie — is pushing negotiators to conclude talks and get the ball rolling in Congress. The Everglades Foundation is also urging the DEP, the Corps and various stakeholders to wrap up, pointing out that any plan authorized this year could be revised later, if needed.
Sometimes it seems as if there is no end in sight for making reparations for all the egregious injuries done to our unique Everglades ecosystem. And every element of the ambitious, expensive restoration plan has assumed a cloak of urgency in recent years.
But with the Lake Okeechobee floodgates opening last month, the Central Everglades clean-up project took center stage. There is real opportunity here to make progress, and we mustn’t let that chance slip away.