Florida Coastal & Ocean Coalition Coordinator and former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah spoke before the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting Tuesday morning.
Judah, who served 24 years as Lee County Commissioner, is deeply involved in the environmental issues of the state of Florida. His remarks centered around the discharge from Lake Okeechobee.
"My main concern over the past decade is what's been going on with Lake Okeechobee," Judah said. "It's tough living downstream, especially when you have all this dirty water that's affecting your quality of life.
"The reason I'm having these public forums is to expose the deception that has been permeating this part of the state," Judah said. "There was a commissioner just today that said the cause of the brown water in the gulf is tannic acid that leeches from the mangroves. Well, most of you that have lived here understand that the mangroves do leech tannic acid that will turn the water a light brown color, but not what we have now this dark brown coffee colored water. We know that the cause of this dark brown water is a lot more than tannic acid.
The former county commissioner also explained why it's important to preserve the local estuaries.
"Estuaries are our most productive ecosystems," Judah said. "And these estuaries require a balanced water system with just the right amount of fresh water to the right amount of salt water. That mixture of salt and fresh water is vital to the ecosystem. These estuaries are where our commercial and sport fishermen find shrimp, crab, redfish, grouper and the list goes on and on.
To fully understand the issue, Judah said, you must be able to understand some of the terminology used in the discussions.
"There are a couple of terms needed to understand the problems we are facing," Judah said. "One very vital factor to this ecosystem is the term of 'flow rate' measured in 'cubic feet per second.' That 'flow rate' from Lake Okeechobee into the rivers and estuaries is what we're talking about today.
"Scientists have demonstrated that an acceptable flow rate from Lake Okeechobee is from 450 cubic feet per second on the low end to 2800 cubic feet per second on the high end. Within this range is the optimum range," Judah said. "Not too long ago we were getting 12,000 cubic feet per second coming out of S79 which is the Franklin Locks. So we're talking about 56 times the amount that causes harm to our estuaries that's coming down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee."
"In addition to all this water destroying the salinity, you have to add all the nutrients," Judah said. "Nutrients are drained from as far away as Disney World in Orlando into Lake Okeechobee.
"Another factor for nutrients is due to the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Okeechobee," Judah said. "The Everglades Agricultural Area contains a total of about 700,000 acres. This includes about 440,000 acres of sugar cane fields. The South Florida Water Management's main job should be to manage these resources for the public benefit. But instead they see their job differently. Their priority is to ensure that the water levels in the sugar cane fields are maintained at 1824 inches below ground for the benefit of the sugar cane fields. This water level insures for optimum production of sugar cane."
Judah says that for decades South Florida Water Management has allowed the sugar cane industry to back-pump water into Lake Okeechobee. Included with all this water are the nutrients, phosphorous, nitrogen, insecticides, plus the chemical waste. They're allowed to do this in order to maintain an optimum amount of water in their sugar cane fields. When it's released from Lake Okeechobee all those nutrients come down the Caloosahatchee River into the estuaries.
Judah referred to the recent visit to Fort Myers by Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott announced on Aug. 28 that the state will spend $90 million to alleviate the excessive water drainage from Lake Okeechobee by constructing a 2.6-mile bridge on Tamiami Trail in Miami-Dade County. The governor stated that this bridge would allow more water (210,000 acre-feet according to the governor) to flow from the lake into the Everglades. Judah questioned how the governor was going to get the water from the lake to the bridge and suggested that the proposal alleviated just 10 percent of the problem calling it the "10% Solution."
By doing the math, Judah demonstrated that the governor's proposal would only alleviate a small fraction of the total water flowing from the lake. One acre-foot of water is the amount of water that covers a one acre area one foot deep. Lake Okeechobee is 430,000 acres making 430,000 acre-feet of water. This year, being a wet season, 4.7 million acre-feet of water entered the lake. The releases from the lake this season have been 2.6 million acre-feet of water. The governor's proposal at 210,000 acre-feet suggests alleviating less than 10 percent.
According to Judah, the hotel/motel business and tourism have been adversely effected. "Visitors are commenting on the brown water and stating they won't be back to Southwest Florida," Judah said. "And with the Internet, the news is getting around the world. We should be the premier destination for tourism and it's critical that we hold our elected officials feet to the fire.
"We have seen massive destruction of tens of thousands of acres of grass beds and deaths of brown pelicans, dolphins and manatees" Judah said. "If you remember last year we had 133 manatee deaths and let me tell you the worst is yet to come." Judah believes Governor Scott should declare a state of emergency
"On a local level 'We the people' need to get involved," Judah said. "Either with phone calls, emails, or petitions the people can change this. Contact your county commissioner, your legislators, or even the governor."