Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Florida's Dirty Little Secret: Part One

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
Island, Florida.
With each pull on the kayak paddle, I realized that, despite the abundance of life that calls Tarpon Bay home, something wasn't altogether right with this world. Decaying plant matter--likely dead seagrass and other native marine vegetation--hung suspended in the brackish water beneath the craft, and my paddle would disappear altogether once dunked in the drink.

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.

The water, 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.
As this tainted water finds its way down the rivers and into the estuaries, the victims are the ecosystems these coastal bays and lagoons nurture ... and everybody who treasures them. These estuaries are vital rookeries for countless coastal birds. They are home to the endangered Florida manitees that graze among the seagrass and the mangroves. They're home to thousands of bottlenose dolphins that feast on the fish that call these waters home.

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.

Next: Who's to blame for this mess?


  1. Ah, landscape level engineering. Always turns out well. Thanks for the heads up on this one Chris, I hadn't heard of the issue yet.

    1. It's funny, Austin... the Laguna Madre doesn't get enough fresh water, and the estuaries of South Florida get too much...

  2. Not a happy story but an important one. Look forward to the rest of the series, Chris.

    I am reading now John Waldman's new book, Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations. An incredible piece of work. It is hard to imagine what East Coast rivers used to be like. We think of places like Bristol Bay as special and unique--and they are. But at one point, EVERY water in North America was like Bristol Bay.

    That's a depressing thought but, as a conservationist, also motivating. We need to protect what we have and use what we have lost to set a chart for restoration.

    I have no doubt you are right about Florida's coastal estuaries--there are surely fixes. It's the summoning the political will part that will be difficult...

    1. Thanks, Matt... having seen this first-hand, I have to say, it IS depressing. Thankfully, there's a solution... stay tuned. More to come.

  3. Being about as far away from Florida as one can get while still being in the lower 48, I'd never heard of this issue. It's ugly. The Corps of Engineers seems capable of bad decisions no matter what part of the country you're in. Thanks for bringing it to light.

  4. Excellent post. With all the "improvements" made to the Everglades over the past hundred years, it's amazing that the fishing down here is still as good as it is. It'll be interesting to see how the various restoration projects affect things, hopefully for the better this time, although I know the originally ambitious plans have been curbed somewhat by economics and politics.

    1. Economics and politics... ain't it the truth, brother...