By Eve Samples, Friends of the Everglades
Two years ago, the St. Lucie River was a cesspool. Toxic blue-green algae bloomed on its surface after the river was flooded — again — by billions of gallons of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.
Neurotoxins from the algae posed a threat to human health and the economy. It felt like a crisis without an end — a familiar sensation in this era of COVID-19.
But today, remarkably, the St. Lucie shows signs of rebirth.
Oysters are spawning, and baby queen conchs have emerged on the sandbar. Patches of seagrass have been spotted on the flats.
The St. Lucie’s recovery is a testament to the power of our natural systems to heal when given a reprieve from pollution.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, the river offers a guiding light for dark times. It’s demonstrating that if we change the way we manage Lake Okeechobee — lowering it during the dry months and sending more clean water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay — we can restore some of Florida’s most precious natural systems.
There is no time to waste. As Marjory Stoneman Douglas, founder of Friends of the Everglades, put it: “You can’t conserve what you haven’t got.”
We know exactly why the St. Lucie’s health has improved since 2018: It’s been spared heavy discharges from Lake Okeechobee for almost two years.
In 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers held the lake lower during the dry season. Rather than reserve a huge surplus of water for irrigating crops south of the lake, the Corps slowly released water ahead of hurricane season.
This year, Mother Nature cooperated. We just witnessed the driest March on record. The Corps has not released any water to the St. Lucie this year, and it’s sending a trickle west to the Caloosahatchee River (which needs it). The lake is just over 11 feet now. If it stays that low by June 1, history tells us the St. Lucie will be spared toxic lake discharges this summer.
But we can’t depend on weather every year — and the current dry conditions aren’t good for the greater Everglades ecosystem.
The Caloosahatchee is struggling with too-salty conditions as the Corps has cut back its ration of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee. Unlike the St. Lucie, the Caloosahatchee needs some dry-season lake water.
Meanwhile, Florida Bay is in danger of a seagrass die-off reminiscent of 2015. The culprit: hypersaline conditions caused by too little water moving south through the Everglades.
There’s a way to ensure all three estuaries linked to the Everglades are protected — and now is a critical time for Floridians to support one solution for the three estuaries.
The Army Corps is overhauling the plan governing management of Lake Okeechobee. At Friends of the Everglades, we’re working to ensure the new plan — called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) — makes human health a priority by preventing the transfer of toxic algae blooms to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
It also must move more water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. We can do this and protect municipal water supply.
The Corps’ next meeting about LOSOM is April 30, and like everything else these days, it will be hosted virtually. You can email the Corps at LakeOComments@usace.army.mil to tell the agency you want Lake Okeechobee managed in the interest of human health — not big sugar profits.
Sugar companies have a lot at stake in the management of Lake Okeechobee. Earlier this year, the industry got a seat at the LOSOM table when consultants for the Florida Sugar Cane League were appointed to represent the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. After public criticism, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried removed them from the LOSOM team.
Then, this month, the consultants — Thomas MacVicar and William Baker — re-emerged as representatives of the city of Clewiston.
While the world is distracted by COVID-19, special interests are eroding environmental policy. This is no time to let down our guard.
If we want the St. Lucie River’s revival to last — and if we want the same for Florida Bay and the Caloosahatchee River — then it’s critical that we demand a better system for managing Lake Okeechobee.
Eve Samples is executive director of Friends of the Everglades, which was founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1969 to preserve, protect and restore the only Everglades in the world.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.