Voters want lawmakers to protect the Everglades

Pollution in the Everglades threatens its vitality and compromises the region’s largest source of fresh water for human consumption.
Pollution in the Everglades threatens its vitality and compromises the region’s largest source of fresh water for human consumption.

Described as “the River of Grass” by writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, America’s Everglades is a complex wetland system with an area greater than 4,500 square miles, and supported by a watershed nearly 22,000 square miles in size.

More than 8 million people now live in the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, which is integral to the human health, as well as the economic and recreational vitality, of the nation’s third most populous state — with 2,000 new residents joining the state each day.

America’s Everglades is now less than half of its original size of nearly 3 million acres. And much of the water that should be going into the Everglades remains polluted, especially with phosphorus from the fertilizers used in agricultural areas north and south of Lake Okeechobee.

Not only do these fertilizers produce accumulations of toxic mercury in fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals — including the iconic Florida panther, among more than 60 other endangered species — it compromises the region’s largest source of fresh water for human consumption. These are dire problems that, if not remedied, will have severe and lasting effects on the overall quality of life here.

The Everglades Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization. We do not support or oppose candidates for office or political parties, but we wanted to see how Floridians and likely voters felt about issues relevant to the Everglades.

In our poll last month, an overwhelming majority of voters, 88 percent, expressed their concern with the current environmental state of America’s Everglades. Correspondingly, 61 percent of voters regard its restoration as being a very important issue — and an even greater percentage view government as being essential to an overall solution.

Seven in ten voters believe environmental laws haven’t gone far enough to protect the Everglades, while 69 percent favor the state purchasing land south of Lake Okeechobee to create additional water storage, thereby ensuring long-term conservation.

Meanwhile, Floridians on both the east and west coasts are witnessing a familiar crisis: Lake Okeechobee threatens to overflow its southern border, venting billions of gallons of polluted water east and west via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. Florida Bay to the south is suffering a sea grass die-off that parallels the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, while the quality and quantity of the drinking water for nearly 8 million Floridians remains threatened. Intuitively, 73 percent of the state’s voters now are more concerned about Florida’s water supply as a result of the crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The tragedy of Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and Florida Bay can be solved if we send Lake Okeechobee water south where it will be stored, cleaned and delivered to the Everglades and Florida Bay. This is the heart of Everglades restoration and is a near-term priority of the highest order.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan or CERP is a master plan that requires the incremental support of our elected leaders in both Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. and, therefore, frequently stalls. It is only with lawmakers’ support that we can create essential water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, while initiating infrastructure projects removing man-made levees and dams in the central Everglades, thereby creating a more natural sheet flow of freshwater south.

Despite the decades-long debate surrounding the restoration of America’s Everglades, Florida voters remain steadfastly committed to the priority, 84 percent of whom consider the Everglades to be a “source of pride” — 65 percent strongly so.

With so much at stake, and voters of various ethnicities and political stripes uniting to speak in such a pronounced voice, we need to double down on our collective resolve to finalize the implementation of CERP, beginning with storing the water of Lake Okeechobee and sending it south.

Eric Eikenberg is chief executive officer of The Everglades Foundation.