Protecting Our Treasured St. Lucie River Environment

South Florida is home to one of the most fascinating and unique natural environments in the world.  While the tourists are often attracted to our beautiful beaches, it is our wetlands and estuaries that make Florida so unique.  There is nothing like the Florida Everglades.  It is a treasure, and MUST be protected and properly nourished.  The same is true of the Caloosahatchee River, the St. Lucie River, its estuary, and riverine environment. And yet, all three ecosystems are being endangered by the current water management scheme for Lake Okeechobee. 

The lake is fed by tributaries that carry ground water from Orlando and surrounding areas into the lake.  That water is unfiltered when it enters the lake, and is fouled by pesticides, fertilizers, sediment and sewage from septic systems.  In the past, the banks of Lake Okeechobee expanded and contracted to accommodate its levels, and often flooded the land around it.  When that land was claimed for agricultural purposes, a levee was built to contain the water in the lake and prevent local flooding. Additionally, channels were built to move water from the lake though to the rivers, and also, to the south into the Everglades. 

The issue with water going to the Everglades is essentially two-fold.  Because the Everglades are so sensitive and protected, water from the lake cannot be released into the Everglades when it is of low quality.  Such water would essentially poison the delicate environment.  On the other hand, a lack of fresh water increases the salinity of the Everglades and causes damage to plants and wildlife.  Put simply, we need a better system to clean water form the lake and increase its flow to the Everglades.

The issue with water being released into the St. Lucie river is just as serious.  Large volumes of unclean “fresh” water from the lake are released into the St. Lucie river, which artificially reduces the salinity of that environment.  The result — TOXIC BLUE-GREEN ALGAE BLOOMS.  Algae blooms are not only unsightly and hamper enjoyment of the river and beaches in our area, but they are toxic to people, plants and animals. 15,000 jobs in our area rely on the St. Lucie river and its surrounding environment, so algae blooms are also economically disastrous. 

The solution seems simple:  1) take steps to clean the water going into Lake Okeechobee, 2) make sure water is clean before it’s released out of the lake, 3) send more water south into the Everglades, and 4) send less water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. And yet, in those four steps, there are many challenges and complexities.  The land south of the lake is being used for lucrative agri-business.  There has been more than a little resistance to reclaiming sufficient land to hold water and clean it before releasing more of it into the Everglades.  The land north of the lake is well-developed and home to many lucrative enterprises, including Disney World.  It will take great political will to reduce the toxicity of water that flows from that area. Finally, it will take significant financial resources to build water treatment plants and facilities to ensure that water released into the rivers is as clean as possible.

I am committed to working with local, state and federal entities to take the necessary steps to prevent algae blooms in the near term, and to modify our water management system to create a long-term sustainable water management system in our state.  We can no longer afford to have leaders who speak about protecting our water resources, but at the same time, vote to cannibalize revenue to the state and federal government.  We can no longer have leaders who pretend to care about the environment, but then choose to gut the Environmental Protection Agency.  A real commitment to our environment starts and stops with a commitment to obtaining necessary resources and funding institutions that work to protect it.