Florida Coastal & Ocean Coalition Coordinator and former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah spoke before the Greater Pine Island Community Association last Tuesday evening.
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 damaging discharge of water from Lake Okeechobee and possible solutions.
Judah began his presentation with a slide showing a significant discharge from a very large pipe.
"Before I get into my presentation, I just want you to have the visual image of this effluent pipe discharging liquid waste from the sugar fields into the Everglades Agricultural Area. When you're out on the waterways here in Southwest Florida and you see those dead fish, I wanted you to have a visual image of the cause for those dead fish."
"We are in difficult time right now," Judah said. "The emphasis just doesn't seem to be on the environment and what's happening right now is a clear example of a lack of leadership at the state and federal level. As a county commissioner for 24 years I always felt a responsibility that we are stewards of our environment because it is the basis of our economic prosperity and our quality of life here in Southwest Florida."
Showing how areas as far north as Orlando affect the quality of water in Southwest Florida, Judah presented a slide.
"Shingle Creek and several other creeks up near Orlando drain into the Kissimmee River and eventually drain into Lake Okeechobee," Judah said.
"Historically what would happen when Lake Okeechobee would overflow is at the southern end of the lake the overflow would 'sheetflow' down through wetlands known as the Everglades Agricultural Area into Everglades National Park. But in the 1940s, canals were built for drainage eliminating the sheetflow," he said. "This was done to open up a large section of land that could be used for agricultural purposes. In 1959, when the Castro took control of Cuba, many Cubans moved into this area and as a result the Fanjul family today owns about 250,000 acres. The Fanjul family, U.S. Sugar and the Sugar Co-op are the three big landholders of the area.
"What's important to understand is even with the heavy rains of this season, because of the changes made in the 1940s, very little water ever reaches the Everglades National Park. Today 45 percent of the water is discharged to the west, another 25 percent is discharged to the east with the remainder going to the Everglades Agricultural Area. Simply put, there shouldn't be any discharge made to the west or east coasts."
He went on to today, "We here in Pine Island understand the 'salinity gradient.' When we have heavy rains like we did this year, and the discharged water from Lake Okeechobee is drained west and east, this causes tremendous destruction to the salinity gradient. The Tape Grass, also known as Vallisneria spiralis, in the upper reaches of the Caloosahatchee is an important food source for manatees. It's also an important shelter for crabs and shrimp. It's important for our commercial fish: grouper, reds, snook and snapper. When you have a slug of fresh water that is discharged at such an excessive rate that effects that salinity gradient it will cause tremendous harm. And, when you add to that the sediment loading and all the nutrients, the nitrogen, the phosphorous that is discharged from the lake we have a real problem.
"What's important is to try to get the water right but what we're seeing instead is a deceptive campaign that seems to give the impression that the legislature is listening, that they are proposing some $229 million for water resource projects that will address the massive releases from Lake Okeechobee to help protect our estuaries. But that is not the case."
All it takes is a look at the water budget. The lake is 430,000 acres. Interestingly a study was done to determine the amount of rainfall, plus the water that flows into Lake Okeechobee in an average year from the Kissimmee River. What has been determined is that Lake "O" will receive about 4.7 million acre feet of water in an average year. 2.4 million acre feet will evaporate leaving 2.3 million acre feet. 500,000 acre feet goes to agriculture in the Everglades Agricultural Area. This leaves 1.8 million acre feet of water that has to go somewhere. Where it has been going is into the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Rivers.
An acre foot is equivalent to one foot of water over one acre.
One proposal to better control the outflow from Lake Okeechobee is the C-43 Reservoir Project. Assuming Congress gets this reservoir funded and built the finished reservoir will hold only 170,000 acre feet of water. At a cost to the taxpayer of $500 million this amounts to less than 10 percent of the need.
"About a month or so ago I received this in the mail from (Congressman) Trey Radel," Judah said. "This gives us an example of the type of deception that's going on. "The Army Corp of engineers is releasing fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into our waterways turning our beautiful water brown, harming our environment and our economy; this is unacceptable. Right now I am taking action to end these harmful releases and completely reform the federal governments roll in local water projects. We know what is best for our water and our environment, not some department in Washington."
Judah went on to say, "When you recognize what Congressman Radel is suggesting is Lake Okeechobee should be holding more water and not release it, he's suggesting the Corp of Engineers doesn't know what they're doing in terms of public safety."
Judah outlined the hurricanes of the late 1920s when Lake Okeechobee overflowed, killing more than 3,000 people and causing a massive destruction of property. This resulted in construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike. Judah said it would seem that Congressman Radel is suggesting holding more water in the lake. Unfortunately, the Army Corp of Engineers doesn't have any choice but to release water rather than cause massive flooding and destruction.
"We have a $65 billion tourism industry," Judah said. "And that's all predicated on a clean healthy environment. That's why people come to Southwest Florida. The warm weather, the wonderful beaches, the water, boating, fishing, swimming. This is a situation where we are compromising the golden goose is unacceptable. Red Tide is a natural occurrence but in the last two decades the extent, duration and frequency is unprecedented. It is destroying our economic and environmental well being."
Judah's proposes "Plan 6 is the Fix." The Plan 6 Project originated with biologist Arthur Marshall and his "Marshall Plan." The "Marshall Plan" is based on Arthur Marshall's environmental principles to restore the Florida Everglades ecosystem and its historic "River of Grass."
This "River of Grass" was in place for thousands of years. The area lies from the southern border of Lake Okeechobee southward to Everglades National Park. This "River of Grass" naturally filtered the overflow from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades Agricultural area into Everglades National Park.
"All we need is 50,000 acres to provide the 'missing link' to actually end up restoring the flow-way from the lake to Everglades National Park," Judah said. "This way we alleviate the massive release to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. Twenty thousand acres of that would be from U.S. Sugar and 30,000 would be from Florida Crystals, the company owned by the Fanjul family."
"The flow-way itself would be a meandering, serpentine, shallow water marsh filtration system that would provide storage, treatment and conveyance," Judah said. "The phosphorous and nitrogen would be filtered out before it makes its way to Everglades National Park."
"This is the system Mother Nature had in place for thousands of years. Instead of coming up with plans that costs billions why not just mimic Mother Nature at far less cost."