Letter: Who Is To Blame For Toxic Algae?

The diversion of polluted water to the estuaries began under Hamilton Disston, a businessman, who purchased a large section of Florida’s Everglades and wetlands with the dream of turning it into dry land. He began the process of dredging and drying out the Everglades more than 100 years ago. He and his engineers sought to drain Lake Okeechobee and the sawgrass prairies and cypress forests surrounding the lake. They began by opening drainage canals to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. Disston also created the first sugar plantations, dreaming up the concept of growing sugar cane in the area surrounding Lake Okeechobee. Disston died, but others carried on his dream. This dream is now Florida’s toxic nightmare.

Disston did not understand that these wetlands and the lake served a purpose, and that to reroute its flows would cause epic catastrophe, for Lake Okeechobee and these surrounding wetlands formed the tributaries of the Everglades. At the same time, they took small prolific estuaries, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, that had limited flows of fresh water, and turned them into a fire hose of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee. During the 1930s, engineers walled off Lake Okeechobee from much of its flood plain and littoral zones, so it was unable to clean its waters of nutrients. The lake went from crystal clear to its turbid color we now see. Because of the hot weather and the shallow nature of the lake, it is subject to algal blooms that are passed onto the estuaries. This situation was set up by Florida’s politicians, who did not understand the importance of protecting the environment.

As Floridians began to realize the damage they had caused, they sought to create a system to correct many of these problems. Legislators created the South Florida Water Management District to repair the Everglades ecosystem in partnership with the federal government. The South Florida Water Management District was set up to have its own tax revenues and highly qualified staff. But Gov. Rick Scott has decimated its revenues, its reserves and its staff. He also removed most of the state’s protections from over-development by disbanding the Department of Community Affairs and reducing the staff of the Department of Environmental Protection. Can anyone be surprised that Florida does not have the resources or the ability to solve its environmental problems?

What is the solution? Restore a portion of the sheet flow south with proper stormwater treatment areas and storage, restore and maintain Lake Okeechobee so it can clean itself (this means lake levels between 12 and 15 feet), restore the funding to the South Florida Water Management District, restore the Department of Community Affairs and the growth management policies so that growth can be properly managed. Stop wetlands destruction around the state. Purchase back a third of the Everglades Agricultural Area to restore wetlands and water storage.

Drew Martin, Loxahatchee Group Conservation Chair, Lake Worth