How Sugar Drained the Everglades (and Sent a Flood of Polluted Water Elsewhere)
Seven inches of rain in January—normally Florida's dry season—devastated two of Florida's most iconic recreational fisheries with billions of gallons of polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee in February.
But it's not exactly the rainfall that hurt the Indian River Lagoon and Pine Island Sound so badly. The problem stems from South Florida's antiquated plumbing system that evolved during the "age of reclamation"—a time when the Everglades was considered a worthless swamp. Back then, state and federal agencies used a network of dikes and canals to dry up the swamp south of Lake Okeechobee, and create agricultural land for the sugar industry. The result in the many decades that followed (and today) is an Everglades ecosystem that doesn't get enough fresh water, and two estuaries on the East and West coasts of Florida that are deluged with a "black tide" of polluted muddy water coming from Lake Okeechobee—the historic dumping ground for the sugar industry. Seagrass, prime habitat in estuarine fisheries, is dying by the acre, cut off from sunlight by dark and muddy water rife with phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers which will likely cause algal blooms as warm weather returns.
The problem became so chronic in 2016 that Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on February 27 for three counties abutting iconic Florida fly fisheries even as his own state government drags its heels on Everglades Restoration that began 20 years ago. Florida voters placed Amendment One (providing for an average of $800 million in a trust for conservation land acquisition) on the ballot in 2014 and passed it overwhelmingly, yet Florida legislators refuse to fund the purchase of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area or EAA (one-time Everglades wetlands now kept artificially dry for sugarcane growers). The land acquisition would allow for a third outlet in Lake Okeechobee's dike to send excess water to a reservoir that would store, clean and convey water to the Everglades and Florida Bay year-round, sparing coastal estuaries of the damaging discharges.
Fisheries in Crisis
Long-time fishing guides and anglers say the fisheries are in crisis, a claim echoed by Dr. Aaron Adams, Director of Science and Conservation for Bonefish Tarpon Trust (BTT).
"The focus is always on outflows and inflows but the crash of the fisheries is a symptom of mismanagement of water in a man-manipulated ecosystem," said Adams. "Extensive research shows that alteration of freshwater flows to estuaries adversely affects fish and fisheries habitat."
And such alterations are not lost on guides and anglers who know their waters.
"In the 20 years I've guided customers on the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon (IRL), the fishing has fallen off drastically," said Capt. Mike Conner, a board member of the Indian Riverkeeper and affiliate of Bullsugar.org. "It is increasingly hard to put anglers on fish here. It's not what you'd expect in a state that proclaims itself Sportfishing Capital of the World. You can eke out a good day occasionally, but it really is a shadow of what it once was."
According to Conner, each discharge event makes the IRL shallows that much more barren where once lush turtlegrass and manatee grass held the forage species that sustain snook, trophy-size spotted seatrout and red drum.
"The real solution," said Conner, "is for Florida to purchase land in the EAA for a reservoir that would stop the coastal discharges and send water south to Florida Bay."
Capt. Daniel Andrews, who has formed a grassroots group, Captains for Clean Water (www.captainsforcleanwater.org) fishes the Pine Island Sound complex that is hammered by Lake discharges via the Caloosahatchee River.
"The flats have a fraction of the grass they once had," said Andrews. "The region from Matlacha Pass at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River north to central Charlotte Harbor is a desert, fish-wise, blanketed in black water. My catch rate is down 80 percent or more. We are booking spring fly tarpon charters, but with all of the dead crabs and baitfish we are seeing now, our concern is will the tarpon be here in decent numbers?"
Andrews says the economic "trickle up" from decreasing guide bookings are now being felt by tackle shops, hotels, and restaurants in Lee County.
The massive discharges at the estuaries to the north cause fresh water-starvation in Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. That has triggered a 40,000-acre seagrass die-off since June just east of Flamingo, on prime fly fishing flats that have produced gave up many a Grand Slam for fly fishers embarking from the Florida Keys.
Veteran Fly fisher Sandy Moret, owner of Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada, has long voiced his frustration with government's lack of action for the Everglades.
"It is criminal that our legislators pander to agricultural interests who bankroll their campaigns to make water management decisions, when the fishing economy that drives Florida Keys tourism is tanking," said Moret. "And I think it's time to expose the politicians who have mis-used our Amendment One funds that should be used to buy land south of the Lake. We need Everglades fresh water down here, or we'll lose this Bay."
For more information on Everglades restoration, visit the Everglades Foundation www.evergladesfoundation.org, and for updates on the continuing Florida fisheries crisis, visit Facebook pages, "bullsugar.org ", "Anglers for Everglades Restoration", and "Captains for Clean Water."