The Endless Lost Summer
June 17 marked a dubious environmental milestone. On that date, year-to-date total discharges of toxic Lake Okeechobee water into the C-44 canal and from there into the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon and beyond, equaled the total discharges from 2013. 2013 was known as the “Lost Summer” for our estuary and the summer of 2016 had not even started. This summer is worse. Toxic blue green algae and the nutrients that feed them are pouring out of the lake and into our estuary with no end in sight.
Watching the Florida legislature’s ineffectual response to this recurring crisis was an important motivating factor in Mary’s decision to run for office. The current representative, ML Magar, has a terrible voting record when it comes to protecting our estuary. In 2013 she voted for HB 999 which authorized previously illegal 30-year no-bid land leases in the Everglades Agricultural Area for the benefit of sugar companies. Magar also voted for an early version of that bill which would have preempted strict local fertilizer ordinances. Representative Magar was the only local legislator to come out against the Florida Water and Land Legacy’s Amendment 1. Mary, by contrast, helped get petitions signed to put the amendment on the ballot.
The Florida legislature continues to ignore their fundamental responsibility to our environment. They prefer to serve the needs of big sugar, big agriculture, and big campaign contributors. The long-term solution to the Lake Okeechobee discharges is well known. Major discharges east and west to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers will continue indefinitely if land is not bought and a flow way established to send additional water south of the lake. A contract to buy the land needed was signed with U. S. Sugar in 2010. There are three dated options in that contract and the Florida legislature has let the first two expire without taking any action. The most recent option was scuttled by Governor Scott’s appointees on the South Florida Water Management District Board of Governors. Amendment 1, which was passed with the support of 75% of Florida voters in 2014, provides the money needed to make the land purchase. Sadly, the Scott administration and Florida’s legislature have refused to use the dedicated funding as intended.
This year’s legislative session included one bill that at least offers lip service to addressing the ongoing discharges. Legacy Florida provides for a “preference in the use of funds distributed for Everglades restoration projects for projects that reduce harmful discharges to the St. Lucie estuary and the Caloosahatchee estuary…” This vague “preference” does not specify a purchase of land south of the lake and there is no guaranteed level of funding, only an indeterminate amount that may be left over after expenditures mandated for other purposes have been made. Still, given Tallahassee’s woeful recent record on the environment, this is a small step in the right direction. Measured against the magnitude of the challenge and the urgency of the need, however, Legacy Florida is sadly inadequate.
Representative Magar signed on to two other bills that are hostile to our environment this year. SB 552 was rushed through at the very start of the session and contained gift-wrapped provisions benefiting agricultural interests including self-policing of “best management practice” compliance. Magar also voted for HB 191, a bill that would have preempted all local and county bans on fracking and legalized fracking throughout the state. Currently, over 70% of Floridians live in jurisdictions where they are protected because local elected officials sensibly voted to ban fracking.
Our lagoon is the most biodiverse estuary in the country and it is the real treasure of the Treasure Coast. Our waters and beaches are the primary attractions of our tourist trade and the foundation of our marine businesses. In 2016, the toxic algae bloom is decimating our river, our lagoon and our economy. This will happen again and again until we change our representation in Tallahassee.
The Lost Summer of 2013
The lost summer of 2013 was a stark reminder that our rivers are an essential source of our quality of life and the engine of our economic well-being. No issue is more important than restoring and maintaining the environmental health of our estuary.
In 2013, record spring rains unleashed a devastating, but sadly familiar cycle. Local runoff brought increased fresh water flows into the C-44 canal, through the locks, and into the St. Lucie River. Soon, flows from the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee led to releases from the lake and the estuary was overwhelmed. Oysters and seagrasses died as salinity plunged, fish disappeared, and numerous species, including manatees, dolphins, and pelicans suffered spikes in mortality. Toxic algae blooms and coliform bacteria made their unwelcome appearance and health departments posted advisories to avoid any contact with the water.
One of the saddest aspects of the slow-motion catastrophe unfolding before us was that it was almost entirely manmade. Decisions made decades ago loomed large: the straightening of the Kissimmee River; the construction of the massive but vulnerable Herbert Hoover dike around Lake Okeechobee; the rerouting of excess wet season flows into Lake Okeechobee away from the south and into the estuaries to the east and west; the draining of much of the Everglades and the creation of the Everglades Agricultural Area. The development that accompanies an expanding population increased local runoff and also dumped more phosphorous and nitrogen from agricultural sources and septic systems into our waters.
One of the saddest aspects of the slow-motion catastrophe unfolding before us was that it was almost entirely manmade."
Recent decisions in Tallahassee failed to recognize the scope of the problem and, in many cases, made things worse. When the economy slumped in 2008, state tax receipts fell significantly- by 11%. Spending on Everglades restoration, however, was slashed by 85%, from $200 million a year to $29 million. Florida Forever funding was almost eliminated, going from $300 million a year to $15 million. The South Florida Water Management District had its budget cut by 30%. In the 2013 legislative session, the environmental blind eye remained painfully evident. The House attempted to implement a preemptive fertilizer use law that would have limited the ability of local governments to enact stricter standards. Sugar growers were given no-bid 30 year leases on land that may soon be needed for environmental cleanup. A law opening up landfills to toxic fly ash was enacted. As summer turned to fall, it also became clear that the administration would allow the option to cheaply purchase lands from U. S. Sugar, needed for water storage south of the lake, to expire.
Despite the gloomy and predictable scenario that played out in our waters and in Tallahassee, a burst of sunshine appeared in the form of an unprecedented surge of activism in the environmental community. Using Facebook, new leaders organized huge rallies at Phipps Park and Stuart Beach. The Stuart News adopted the rivers as a cause and provided continuous in-depth coverage. Politicians scrambled to conduct hearings and promised that they were doing everything possible to correct the situation.
Sadly, this is also a familiar part of the cycle of environmental failure. For example, much was made of Governor Scott's announcement of his intention to request $40,000,000 for the C-44 reservoir/water treatment area project which will help store and treat runoff in the St. Lucie basin. A realistic assessment of this commitment would note that the C-44 project was originally supposed to be completed in 2009 and now is not expected to be completed before 2017.
Mary Higgins believes that the environment should not be held hostage to the whims of politicians who are more responsive to special interests than the needs of their constituents. Unlike our current local state representatives, she has pledged not to take any campaign contributions from Big Sugar. She also believes that important environmental projects require a stable source of funding and volunteered to collect signatures for Florida Water and Land Legacy in their drive to put a constitutional amendment for that purpose on the ballot in 2014.
The problems that devastated our rivers and lagoon in 2013 were not created overnight and solving those problems will not be accomplished quickly, easily, or cheaply. A viable long-term solution will include a series of large public works programs and revamped regulations. Spending on the environment is not just a cost to the taxpayer, it is also an investment in our future physical and economic well-being and the price of upholding our moral obligation to pass on to the next generation that which was passed on to us.
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Traditional Republican voters have a painful reality to face. The Republicans in Tallahassee are now Teapublicans. The Florida Republican Party has been taken over by a well-funded radical fringe which is focused on representing special interests.
Mary moved to Port Salerno with three school-age children in 1986. Martin County's excellent school system was one of the main reasons she chose to relocate here. Martin County still has excellent schools, ranking 3rd of Florida's 67 county school systems.