It has happened again, but this time worse. Because of abnormally heavy rainful, Lake Okeechobee has risen to dangerous levels, and rather than risk a disastrous flood that killed thousands many years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun discharging water into the estuaries both east and west. That’s the official version. More to come. Meanwhile, we read mostly about the problems this causes to the east, in the St. Lucie River Estuary, which connects to the lake by canal. And the same thing happens on the other side of the state in the Fort Myers area, but because of natural factors, it does not cause the same damage.
What happens is that the lake water, which is polluted by run-off from agriculture, filled with fertilizer that helps grow crops but hurts anything to do with water ecology, flows into the estuaries and kills them. Or rather it kills creatures, such as oysters and fish, and drives other fish away, and the combination kills businesses that depend on clean water. People who come to Stuart for its famous fishing find the fishing lousy and don’t stay. For an area made so beautiful by its abundant waterways, this is a recurring setback.
The affected communities complain, they get some press (such as a front-page piece in Monday’s Sun-Sentinel), they arouse public interest and sometimes that of elected officials, and not much happens. A few years pass, and without heavy rains the pollution gradually disappears and wildlife begins to recover. There are even times when the lake level gets dangerously low, affecting water supplies in South Florida. But then it happens all over. And it is happening right now.
Our credible source on this matter is Karl Wickstrom, founder and long-time editor of Florida Sportsman magazine. He will go down in the Florida Ecological Hall of Fame, if we ever get such an honor. He is also one of the best publishers we have known in 40 years in Florida. Karl started out in Miami, with the Herald, but now is based in Stuart and sees up close what the lake discharges do. When fresh (although polluted) water mixes with salt water from the St. Lucie River, it is a punch to the ecological gut. We trust his information more than that from any political type. He says, as he has written often:
“Actually, when they discharge from the lake, more water goes west than east, but the west is better able to deal with it. But it’s a terrible thing for both coasts. There are thousands of species that need the mix of fresh and salt water. By flooding the area they destroy sea grasses which are host for a lot of animals. Agriculture is not conducive to good ecology.”
But Wickstrom is not condemning all agriculture. And he makes sure when we announce the principal culprit, “Big Sugar,” we say that is not just the powerful sugar growers, but also citrus and other interests. But as a group they can outvote, because they outspend, everybody else. Which comes to the heart of the matter.
The public thinks the discharges, if they know about them at all, are to protect the dike holding back Lake Okeechobee. Nada, says Wickstrom.
“When the Corps of Engineers says that, it is not really to protect that dike. That is secondary. The first reason is to the protection of Big Sugar. They have spent hundreds of millions in influence.”
He means that water moving elsewhere, toward agricultural land surrounding the lake, especially to to the south where it was directed by nature into what was once a much wider Everglades, before so much land was drained for agricultural purposes, would affect the growers. They have deep pockets and use them to control the politics of pollution. Wickstrom further points out that developers are required to build retention ponds that hold water in times of heavy rain.
“That is required everywhere but with Big Sugar. They have a free ride to pollute the coasts and wipe out all kinds of life,” he says. “They give the impression that the public doesn’t get hurt, and that is so infuriating because they hurt one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in the country. When you ask politicians, they think plans are underway to correct this, but it’s not true. There is nothing being done to stop over drainage.”
In fairness to the Army Corps of Engineers, Wickstrom says the feds have a solution to the problem, which is to take 15 to 20 percent of Big Sugar land and convert it back into sawgrass, a natural filter for the pollutants agriculture causes. It is called Plan 6. What keeps it from happening is called the politics of Big Sugar. It can be a complicated read, especially for most of the public that doesn’t give a damn, but Wickstrom urges people to visit riverscoalition.org.