Note: This is the first in a series of posts focusing on the ecological issues facing the coastal estuaries of south Florida. Read Part Two here, and Part Three here.
|Tarpon Bay in the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel|
I'd been hearing about this situation for the better part of a week before I took to the mangroves in search of salty fish--it's an odd dilemma facing both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of southern Florida. There's simply too much fresh water entering the estuaries down the Indian, St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee rivers. And, frankly, the word "fresh" isn't exactly accurate, either.
tainted overflow from Florida's famed Lake Okeechobee, is artificially diverted into these rivers by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rather than allowed to enter the Everglades (which sorely needs the fresh water). About 150 years ago, the process that drained much of Okeechobee and the northern reaches of the Everglades to make room for agricultural development started. Today, this former swamp is the sugar capital of Florida, and cane fields now dominate the landscape rather than the River of Grass that once filtered much of south Florida's runoff before depositing just the right amount of clean, fresh water into Florida Bay at the northern end of the Florida Keys.
Today, when Lake Okeechobee exceeds it's artificially limited capacity (usually during the summer rainy season), the Corps, through a system of diversions and locks, sends the excess water--and all the nitrates, phosphorus and fertilizer in it--into the estuaries on either Florida coast. The normally emerald green waters of these coastal oases turn dark and foreboding. Stained. Brown. Dirty.
|Bottlenose dolphins hunt for fish in the tarnished water of San Carlos Bay.|
Oh, yes, the fish. These estuaries are the nurseries for prized redfish, snook, sea trout, tarpon, drum, mackerel, ladyfish, jack crevailles and dozens of other species that draw the attention of many of the 3.1 million resident and non-resident anglers who fish Florida each year. These fish, according to a study commissioned recently by the American Sportfishing Association, account for some $8.6 billion in retail sales and other fishing-related expenditures (hotel rooms, restaurants, gas, groceries, etc.), more than 80,000 jobs and well over $1 billon in state, local and federal tax revenues.
Just this past week, releases into the estuaries were scaled back--the summer rainy season in south Florida is nearing its end. Now comes the dry season, when Lake Okeechobee will begin to recede and--you guessed it--the Corps of Engineers will work like mad on behalf of the sugar industry to save every last drop for crops. The estuaries--bloated and brown most of the summer by tainted water--will get precious little fresh water until the rains come next summer. Then, they'll get too much.
It's feast or famine for the coastal estuaries of south Florida, and while the solution to restoring balance to these vital ecological and recreational wonderlands seems simple--and it frankly is, assuming the political will can be mustered--powerful interests stand in the way.