Since the start of the Indian River Lagoon crisis this summer, there have been a variety of calls to action. Thousands of people raised their voices at protests, in the media, and to elected leaders to protect the ecosystems we love and depend on for Florida’s economy. The fever pitch of emotion from river advocates swelled to the halls of Congress and the state Capitol.
Bravo to the public for making our politicians take notice. And believe it or not, they have taken notice.
Let’s take a breath to take stock of what has been accomplished since the crisis started. And more importantly, take a step back to understand what remains to be done.
Since this summer, the public’s voices have led to:
• Increased funding for Everglades restoration projects.
This summer, the State of Florida committed $40 million to a restoration project that will help clean water from the St. Lucie Basin, known as the C-44 project. In addition, the state committed $90 million over three years to help raise Tamiami Trail to flow water south into Everglades National Park.
• Short term operational fixes to flow water south.
The South Florida Water Management District came up with some innovative ways to flow extra quantities of water south to the Everglades. Are the quantities of water huge? No. But every bit helps.
• Progress on the Herbert Hoover Dike Repair.
Slow as it may seem, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is continuing progress on repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike, the levee that protects citizens from flooding in the cities south of Lake Okeechobee. Just a few weeks ago, new contracts were awarded to companies to help repair culverts around the lake.
• Elevating the crisis to the national and statewide stage.
Last week, 40 rivers advocates went to Washington D.C. to attend a bipartisan congressional hearing on the Indian River Lagoon crisis. Sen. Bill Nelson convened a scientist roundtable on solutions. And state Sen. Joe Negron held a marathon select committee meeting, aiming to come up with a set of recommendations by November.
But we are nowhere near the finish line. So where do we go from here?
• Clean up the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries.
The continued pollution of the water north of Lake Okeechobee and in the estuaries is the 800,000 pound gorilla in the room. Actually, more. Annually, more than 4,000 metric tons of phosphorus enters the Okeechobee watershed — that is over 880,000 pounds, mostly from agricultural and urban sources from fertilizer, animal feed, stormwater and wastewater north of Lake Okeechobee. The state must crack down to make sure that the use of farm and lawn fertilizer does not harm water throughout the northern Everglades and estuaries. There are plans that purport to improve Lake Okeechobee’s water quality, but they are not working. Polluters should be held accountable. There should be quantifiable reductions through a mandatory program, with clear reporting requirements, on a clear timeline.
• Store more water on private lands north of Lake Okeechobee and in the estuary basins.
There should be more funding made available for projects that partner public agencies with landowners to store water on lands in the northern Everglades and estuary basins. There needs to be a clear, science-based plan to determine the most cost-effective and ecologically effective locations to store water from Orlando south to Lake Okeechobee.
• Keep moving forward with Everglades restoration and Kissimmee River restoration.
Everglades restoration is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. It will take decades to complete. A number of projects, like the Kissimmee River restoration, are nearing the finish line. To ensure progress, it is crucial for the public to keep pressure on state and federal leaders to authorize and fund projects like the Central Everglades Planning project, Indian River Lagoon South and the C-43 Caloosahatchee Basin Storage Reservoir. It is also critical to support the use of adaptive management to gain the most ecological benefits when the projects are completed.
These solutions need decades of commitment and support. Fixing Florida’s water resources requires funding, political will, and realistic conversations. We must keep pressure on our leaders to protect our water for years into the future.
Lida Rodriguez-Taseff is a lawyer in Miami and Audubon Florida board member.