Florida Water Crisis: Is New Leadership Finally Turning the Tide?

Florida Water Crisis: Is New Leadership Finally Turning the Tide?

Captain Daniel Andrews stands on the skiff’s bow, staring intently across the sunrise-pink waters of Pine Island Sound, remembering aloud when the tide flowed the wrong way.

“In the summer of 2013 we had really bad discharges,” Andrews said. “It was like a full-time outgoing tide at Redfish Pass. There were days where the tide was supposed to be slack and it was just dumping. It would have to be like a really strong incoming to be able to fight all the discharge water going out.”

That brown, nutrient-laden freshwater—billions of gallons of it of it—poured from Lake Okeechobee, through a man-made canal into the Caloosahatchee River, before inundating Pine Island Sound.

Andrews briefly broke his osprey-like scan. With his right hand cradling a 12-weight fly rod, he pointed north.

“I don’t know if you see that that red shack three or four miles up there. See a little dot of red on the horizon? I was kind of back in all that,” Andrews said. “It was like a slice of pie of clean water back there that about every damn redfish within 20 miles had gotten into. So, you know, it was survivable, but I was thinking on the way back from running back all the way to the boat ramp every day. Like, ‘well, this is what they’re talking about.’”

After a childhood on the waters of Pine Island Sound, Andrews, now 28, had heard plenty of talk about red tide. Nonetheless, straight out of high school in 2009, he followed his calling and became a full-time fishing guide.

A giant red tide bloom all along Florida’s southwest coast started in the fall of 2012 and persisted well into the next spring. It killed a record 241 manatees, dozens of dolphins, miles of seagrass beds, and snook, tarpon, redfish, sea trout, goliath grouper, and all manner of fishes by the literal dump truck load.

Red tides, the mass proliferation of the algae Kerenia brevis, occur naturally, but these extra-large blooms that keep happening in unison with the freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee are not natural events. These oversized algal blooms are massively accelerated by the floods of freshwater and the phosphorus and fertilizers they carry.

In 2015, the bloom showed up even worse. When it hit national news, Florida’s all-important tourism economy took a nosedive—along with it, fish populations and guide bookings.

“I was pissed, Chris was pissed, pretty much everybody down here was pissed, from the people that have just memories out here to the people that are depending on the water for their living,” Andrews said.

Andrews had become friends with Captain Chris Wittman, by then an accomplished guide, tournament angler, and TV personality. Together, they called a meeting, asking other concerned guides and anglers to come express their opinions, unsure what outcome to expect. More than 300 people showed up.

All of a sudden, Andrews and Wittman stood at the helm of a movement. With their connections to big name fishing brands and personalities, they harnessed that power to pressure politicians.

“We realized we needed to show our policymakers that this is an economic issue, ultimately,” Wittman said, remote-controlling the trolling motor from the skiff’s poling platform. “You’d go in and tell them about all the loss of sea grass or dead fish and manatees or dolphins and it’s only going to get you so far. But if you can quantify that impact in numbers and the economy and jobs, then that’s really what gets their attention unfortunately.

“Pretty much immediately we realized that it wasn’t something we could do part time. We saw that we had an opportunity with the water being so bad in the public being more engaged than we had ever seen them and our entire lives. We had to seize that opportunity.”

The huge public outcry that fueled the rapid growth of Captains For Clean Water, and the election of their ally, Governor Ron DeSantis, suggests that the tide in Florida is finally turning. But there is still a very long way to go.

“In 2016 when we started captains, when those discharges got really bad, that was just a wake-up call for everybody,” Andrews said. “It’s not going away unless a lot of people get really pissed. Nothing’s going to change.

“When you get pissed, you do stuff that you normally wouldn’t do. Like, quit a cool job to deal with shitty politicians.”

Even a basic understanding of what’s going on with South Florida’s water and fisheries, and what can be done about them, requires a little bit of a dive into the history and hydrology of the area.

The lower half America’s 400-mile-long peninsula dangling down into the Caribbean—Florida—is basically one big shot luge made of swamp rather than ice and flowing freshwater instead of booze (mostly). Rain, often full hurricane quantities of it, falls around Orlando and generally winds up in the straightened and channelized Kissimmee River. That water, which used to slowly filter through lakes and wetlands for 22 days before reaching Lake Okeechobee, now slides straight though in a matter of hours. Lake O, the eighth largest lake in the United States, is the primary store of freshwater for all of South Florida and the headwaters of an incredibly important labyrinth of swamp and cypress bayou known as the Everglades.

The Everglades, in this context, refers to a coast-to-coast wide filter-marsh expanse, not the constricted national park zone that bears the official title. It once flowed evenly across the entire southern end of Florida, the proverbial “River of Grass,” feeding a vast estuarine ecosystem home to manatees, alligators, black bears, and Florida panthers. As the water moved south, it also carried critical nutrients and sediments. These deposits actually formed the Florida Keys island chain. That sickle of lowlands jutting into the Gulf of Mexico demonstrate the historic power the Everglades’ flow once carried. Realizing how we have changed the progress of all this water over the past century is critical to understanding what’s happening now.

Map courtesy of the Everglades Foundation.

In 1842, after three wars over a quarter century, the U.S. Government gave up trying to ferret the last of the Seminole Indians out of the Everglades. The tribe proudly claims to be the only one to never surrender, but nonetheless their territory became the State of Florida in 1845. The population stayed low, and the impenetrable wilderness remained mostly unmolested through the Civil War. A few modest efforts failed to “drain the swamp” and make South Florida livable mostly failed.

In 1877, diplomat Henry Shelton Sanford invited wealthy Philadelphia industrialist and avid fisherman Henry Disston on a fishing trip around Florida. Four years later, Disston completed the purchase of 4 million acres from the state’s bankrupt development fund—which some claim to be the largest private land acquisition in world history. His influx of capital jumpstarted development of the area, building towns and rail lines, sowing sugarcane plantations, and digging canals with the goal of draining or at least controlling Lake Okeechobee. His efforts were largely viewed as disappointing, but he did begin straightening the Kissimmee River and first connected Lake O to the Caloosahatchee River. The lake never used to flow west, but Disston’s canal would become the genesis of Okeechobee water discharges into Pine Island Sound.

Development mostly stalled after Disston’s early death in 1896. Then two huge hurricanes, two years apart, hammered Lake O in the late 1920s. The mass destruction and an estimated 4,000-plus deaths from the 20-foot-tall storm surges overflowing the southern banks of the lake spurred the Florida and U.S. governments to take action. President Hebert Hoover visited the area shortly after taking office and authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to build a system of levees to corral the treacherous waterbody. His successor, President Franklin Roosevelt, designated the remaining western half of the original ‘Glades as Everglades National Park in 1934. However, in 1937, a group of boats passed across the state of Florida from Fort Myers to Stuart in one day to celebrate the opening of the Okeechobee Waterway and President Hoover’s eponymous dike.

The project completed what Disston and others had envisioned for half a century—controlling Lake O’s size and temperament by redirecting much of the water that used to flow down through the ‘Glades west out the Caloosahatchee River to Pine Island Sound and east out the St. Lucie River to Indian River Lagoon. The natural flow southward through the Everglades into Florida Bay was largely blocked to protect growing communities and infrastructure, and to promote sugarcane agriculture to the southeast of the lake.

At the time, the project was nothing short of miraculous. Enterprising and brilliant Americans had tamed a volatile inland sea and transformed a wasteland of treacherous swamp into an oasis of habitable and highly arable land. The architects of these projects were not greedy land barons masterminding ecological catastrophe; those came later.

The Army Corps expanded and raised the dike when it overflowed after the 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane. The Corps also constructed more than 1,000 miles of canals to help soften the blow of future catastrophic rain events and deliver water to the rapidly expanding Miami Metropolis. The next year, the Florida legislature established the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and its powerful board to control the flow of all freshwater from Orlando to Key West. In 1976, that board gained the ability to levy taxes, a rare thing for a municipal agency.

The Everglades, starved of freshwater, have been shrinking and dying ever since. About half of the original ‘Glades are now urban or agricultural areas. Much of the rest is drying up or suffering saltwater incursion. Pine Island Sound and the Indian River Lagoon are experiencing the opposite problem—too much freshwater—in the form a billions of gallons of nutrient-laden water diverted from the lake to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

The sugarcane industry blossomed south of Lake O in the 1920s, spurred by canal construction and advances in fertilization. Agricultural experiments revealed that adding large amounts manganese sulfate to the Everglades soil made it extremely fertile. Along with the late ‘40s flood control projects, lawmakers carved out 27%—more than 700 square miles—of the Everglades just southeast of Lake O to be cleared, tilled, and called the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). Another bonanza came with the 1960s embargos on Cuban goods, not the least of which being sugar.

Thanks to protectionist policies, most sugar consumed in America is produced domestically, at twice the worldwide price per pound, costing taxpayers more than $4 billion in federal subsidies per year. One out of every 5 teaspoons of sugar Americans eat comes from the EAA (and we each eat about 77 pounds per year on average). That leaves the Florida sugar industry with an average $65 million in windfall profits every year, much of which they sow right back in to political influence.

The Florida sugarcane industry and the EAA are dominated by two privately held companies, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals. These corporations (known as “Big Sugar”), and the families that control them, have become vastly wealthy and powerful thanks to the large subsidies—which they defend aggressively with massive lobbying efforts and campaign donations. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that, in 2016 alone, the sugarcane industry spent $8.5 million on campaign contributions and $11.2 million on lobbying. Florida Crystals and its owners, the Fanjul Family, spread around the lion’s share of that money. Patriarch brothers Jose “Pepe” and Alfonso “Alfy” Fanjul are the successors to wealthy Cuban sugar barons who fled the Cuban Revolution. Pepe is a major donor and figure in the GOP while Alfy wields great power and funding within the Democratic Party. Phone records from impeachment proceedings revealed that President Bill Clinton took a call from Alfy Fanjul while alone in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky. Big Sugar influences all sides of Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., politics to maintain their subsidies, tariffs, profits, and control. An essential lever of that control happens to be the South Florida Water Management District. The water management protocols for the last 80 years are widely seen to have benefited the sugarcane industry.

Environmental effects from water rerouting and industrial agriculture stared to appear as early as the 1960s. During a project to further straighten and channelize the Kissimmee River from Orlando to Okeechobee, people quickly started to notice the disappearance of birds and fish from the area. In 1983, Florida Gov. Bob Graham introduced the Save Our Everglades campaign in an attempt to restore some natural flows. In 1986, however, a massive blue-green algae bloom—which can cause serious human illness when it breaks down—covered up a fifth of Lake O for the first time. Scientists discovered that the sugarcane growers to the south were back-pumping their excess irrigation canal water back into the lake, along with all the phosphorous and fertilizer it picked up in their fields. All those extra nutrients fueled the algal blooms.

Legislation to addressing the ecological issues in South Florida’s continued to come forward, with nearly every successive governor and congressional representative making their big stand. Florida’s Everglades Forever Act of 1994 made some progress on lowering the amount of phosphorus entering Lake O and the Everglades. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) passed the U.S. Congress in 2000, outlining a 30-year path forward to solving Florida’s water crisis and restoring natural water flow. With input from many of the best local hydrologists and ecologists, CERP recommended numerous construction projects primarily aimed at storing and filtering excess water from Lake O and redirecting it south toward the Everglades instead of east and west to the coasts. Chief among those was an expansion reservoir in the EAA, taking up about 15% of the area.

Most of the projects outlined by CERP haven’t come to fruition, and most Floridians are disappointed with the progress. In 2008, during a period of low cane sugar prices and recession economy, U.S. Sugar offered to sell its holdings within the EAA to the State of Florida, $1.3 billion for 187,000 acres. But Florida Crystals, the Fanjuls, and their army of lobbyists pushed back hard on the agreement and the money didn’t accumulate. In 2014, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative known as Amendment 1, which sends a portion of taxes on real estate transactions to a trust fund to build the expansion reservoir, tens of millions of dollars every year. There is much optimism that DeSantis’ new gubernatorial administration will finally begin construction of an EAA reservoir.

While projects, policies, and acquisitions stalled, fisheries suffered. Things got really bad in Florida following unusually heavy rainfall in 2012 and prior. At the behest of sugar growers, SFWMD and the Army Corps had kept water levels high in Lake O to preserve irrigation water in case of drought, but when even more water started to threaten the dike, they had to shunt billions of gallons through canals into Pine Island Sound and the Indian River Lagoon. Toxic algal blooms of different types sprung up in various estuaries around the southern tip of the state and lingered into the next year. Hyper-salinity in Florida Bay killed miles of seagrass beds, while low salinity killed oysters on the east and west coasts. Fish died in the millions, mammals in the hundreds, beaches closed, health advisories were issued, and Florida’s valuable tourism economy took a giant hit—leading to the moniker of “the Lost Summer of 2013.”

Awful as 2013 was, 2016 eclipsed it when the toxic freshwater discharges and algal blooms showed up with an even greater vengeance. The same thing happened in 2017 and again in 2018, with red tide ringing the whole southern end of Florida. Though naturally occurring, red tide blooms have grown larger and denser with the added phosphorus coming to the coasts from Lake O. The algae proliferate, gobbling up all the oxygen and suffocating fish, oysters, plants, and marine life. The soup-like blooms also block out the sun, preventing sea grass from photosynthesizing. When washed against the shore, the algae breaks down and releases toxins into the air that cause respiratory problems for humans and marine mammals.

Even migratory waterfowl are now avoiding South Florida. Travis Thompson, a  guide and host of the popular Cast and Blast Florida Podcast, has been taking hunters out after redheads and bluebills for over a decade in Charlotte Harbor on the north end of Pine Island Sound. In seasons past, limits of ducks were almost a sure thing. Not anymore.

“A shutout on the harbor is unheard of, but it happened last year,” Thompson said. “The red tide wiped out all the krill those ducks like and they disappeared.”

The freshwater blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria, appears in Lake O and gets flushed into the Gulf and Atlantic, releasing neurotoxins as it breaks down. Some families are choosing to evacuate rather than expose children to the poison. The dead algae ultimately rot and mix with the plant matter they kill, creating a fetid, pervasive, bottom-coating sludge Florida locals have taken to calling “black mayonnaise.”

Cyanobacteria has become common on Lake O, but it was a new thing for Pine Island Sound in 2018.

“It was like the apocalypse hit here. You know, when we started Captains [For Clean Water], we started it because there was dead sea grass and dead oysters,” Andrews said. “I’d never even seen that green stuff before, the cyanobacteria. Wasn’t even on our radar.”

In July 2018, 21-foot-long adult whale shark washed ashore on Sanibel Island, apparently taken down by the toxic algae.

Toni Westland is the head ranger at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, situated directly in the line of fire from the Caloosahatchee River mouth. The refuge absorbed the full force of those algal blooms and freshwater discharges. Established in 1945 at the urging of Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, architect of the Federal Duck Stamp Program, and founder of the National Wildlife Federation, the refuge protected some of the last wild, pristine mangrove ecosystems on Florida’s west coast. It is one of the most important tarpon nurseries in the state and receives more than a million visitors every year. But it has taken a beating in recent years.

Westland, proudly donning her green USFWS ranger hat, patrols her refuge with a big smile on her face. She doesn’t see a group without making sure they’re having fun and doesn’t pass a child without a high-five.

“I’ve worked with the Corps of Engineers on Lake Okeechobee. It’s a giant bowl of water and when it fills up, it’s gonna spill. It’s just the way it’s been designed,” Westland said. “The water needs to move south. We’re seeing more talk about the reservoir where they’re going to divert the water, store it, filter it, and get it moving south. These are the conversations being had, but these are the same conversations being had that I’ve heard since I’ve been here, going on 18 years.”

Westland echoes the sentiment of many Floridians—they have been hearing the same platitudes for decades and yet the problem keeps getting worse.

“This is truly the Rachel Carson problem of the ’60s with DDT, the pesticide use,” Westland said. “That was a crisis. She wrote ‘Silent Spring.’ We are in a crisis. It’s just fertilizer use.”

Westland says that even though industrial agriculture may play a large role, every Floridian needs to be aware of their own effect on this issue. From the innumerable golf courses, to spraying invasive water hyacinth, to residential landscaping, a lot of phosphorus and nitrogen wind up in Florida’s waterways.

“People want to say, ‘Oh, it’s not me.’ Yes, it is you. We can blame U.S. Sugar, but it’s also the average Joe putting fertilizers on their property,” Westland said. “Do you pay a landscaper? I do, but I don’t let him put the stuff on my lawn. My lawn doesn’t look perfect and I’m dealing with my HOA right now. I’m like, ‘This is Florida and your grass isn’t supposed to look like that.’”

Dr. Aaron Adams is the director of science and conservation for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. He says that fish stocks and fishing have been drastically damaged up and down both coasts.

“The water mismanagement in South Florida has affected the entire state. The focus, the kind of epicenter of that, the poster child, is the Everglades and all the comes with it. But it’s true throughout the entire state,” Adams said.

“If you took someone from 50 years ago, or at this point even 20 years ago, and suddenly dropped them into today, most of those fishermen would leave the state or sell their fishing gear,” Adams said. “It’s important for people to realize what the situation is now versus what was could be again and not to settle for what they encounter now, but to know that it’s supposed to be a hell of a lot better.”

Prior to 2012, red tide events occurred on a smaller scale and primarily in the winter off-season. When they started extending into the summer, people started to notice. National news coverage of beach closures, health advisories, and fish die-offs took a huge bite out of Florida’s $63 billion tourism industry and $9.3 billion fishing economy. Chris Wittman says guided fishing trips in his area dropped by 80 percent. When it started to hurt Floridian’s pocketbooks, it finally started to matter at the polls.

Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott was in office from 2011 to 2019, before reaching his two-term limit. His efforts to address these problems were viewed as disappointing by the conservation community, to put it mildly. He cut $700 million from the state’s water management district budgets and remained cozy with the sugarcane industry, his largest campaign contributor.

Norm Zeigler is a veteran fishing writer and fly shop owner on Sanibel Island.

“One of my guides said last year he would take Rick Scott out fishing and only charge him half price for a one-way trip,” Zeigler said. “He really drew anger and hate. He eviscerated the Florida environmental regulations over the eight years he was in office.”

When Scott termed out and launched a successful bid for the U.S. Senate, his agriculture secretary Adam Putnam became the heir-apparent for the Republican nomination to replace him as governor. Putnam was the only candidate on either side to defend the sugarcane industry. He also accepted more than $8 million in campaign contributions directly or from PACs linked to Big Sugar.

Ron DeSantis, a naval veteran and two-term congressman, voted against sugar subsidies while in the House. He raised half as much money as Putnam in the primary but walked away with the Republican gubernatorial nomination, carrying 56% percent of the vote. He spoke out strongly against the sugar industry and focused much of his primary and general campaigns on restoring the Everglades, garnering praise from many conservation groups including Captains for Clean Water and the Everglades Foundation. He narrowly beat the Democratic candidate, Andrew Gillum, in the general election. Adam Putnam now serves as CEO of Ducks Unlimited.

Two days after DeSantis was elected governor in November, 2018, the South Florida Water Management District board held a surprise vote to renew Florida Crystal’s lease on 16,000 acres of  state-owned land in the EAA that had been earmarked for the Okeechobee expansion reservoir. They also asked a judge to overturn a 1992 court order requiring sugar growers to remove phosphorus from water going into the Everglades or back into Lake O. Congressman Brian Mast, an ally of DeSantis and fellow Everglades champion, rushed to the SFWMD chambers to beg that they delay the vote and provide proper public notification. They refused.

On his second day in office, January 2019, Gov. DeSantis demanded resignations from the entire SFWMD board. He said the members had failed to truly address the water crisis situation and had not acted in the interests of Floridians. Some put up a fight, but the board is now fully reconstituted with a selection of citizens with backgrounds in ecology, water monitoring, and Everglades advocacy.

Another sea-change moment occurred on July 10, 2019, when Major General Scott Spellmon of the Army Corps of Engineers appeared before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Pressed by Rep. Brian Mast, Spellmon admitted for the first time that the Corps had knowingly released toxic water into Florida’s waterways.

“Yes, sir,” Spellmon said. “We have conveyed water out the system that has contained cyanobacteria and harmful algae blooms.”

“And the Corps considers that toxic?” Mast replied.

“Yes sir,” Spellmon said.

Having publicly acknowledged that they were, in effect, poisoning American citizens, the Army Corps is adjusting their water flow regime to try to avoid doing so in the future. But with Hurricane Dorian recently threatening the state or any other large rain event in the future, they may have no choice.

Also on his second day in office, DeSantis issued an executive order pledging $2.5 billion for Everglades restoration over four years. In May, he convinced his ally President Trump to maintain the $200 million in promised federal funds for restoration and an expansion reservoir, after the administration initially allocated only $64 million in the Army Corps budget.

“Funding has been a limiting factor. You’re talking about the largest restoration project ever undertaken in the world,” Wittman said. “It requires a lot of funding from the state of Florida and the federal government. So, there’s other things that are competing for funding, but there’s also been a lack of political will—because of that special interest influence—to not really look creatively and objectively at how we can get the funding.”

In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act, which allocated more serious federal dollars for Everglades Restoration. In 2018, the Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 10, authorizing funding and construction for the EAA reservoir.

“So, it is moving along. There are permits that the state has to file,” said Dr. Steve Davis, senior ecologist for the Everglades Foundation. “There is a treatment component that goes along with this reservoir. The water from Lake Okeechobee is very rich in phosphorus from fertilizers. So there is a storm water treatment area marsh, that’s probably going to be the first thing out of the box with this particular project. And then over time the reservoir itself will be built so that you have the storage and the necessary treatment to allow water managers to flow that water all the way down to the park.”

Davis has a doctorate in aquatic ecology and has studied and worked in the Everglades ecosystem for 25 years. He says the needle is now finally moving on fixing the problems.

“I don’t know of anyone who’s been involved with Everglades restoration from the beginning who remains pessimistic about progress,” Davis said. “If you had asked us 10 or 15 years ago, we would’ve been frustrated with the lack of progress. Where we are right now is we’re seeing those foundational type projects, Kissimmee River restoration, the issues surrounding dike safety on Lake O, the bridging of Tamiami Trail. Now that we’re seeing these foundational projects coming to a close and we’re seeing some CERP projects coming to completion and pursuing new groundbreakings.”

While various politicians and special interests continue to haggle over the specifics and funding, there is a relatively clear, united, scientific consensus on what needs to be done. In March, 2015, more than 200 biologists, ecologists, hydrologists, and other respected researchers who study South Florida ecosystems signed a declaration. The Everglades Foundation encourages you to sign it, too.

“As a scientist working in the Everglades, it is my scientific opinion that increased storage and treatment of freshwater south of Lake Okeechobee, and additional flow from the lake southward, is essential to restoring the Everglades, Florida Bay, and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.”

This plan would only require about 15% percent of the EAA, mostly on state-owned land. It would hardly affect those who work in the farming industry and the communities that depend on it. But the benefits from storing, treating, and conveying water south through the EAA could be enormous, with the added bonus of reducing discharges east and west.

“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. The costs and risks of further delay are staggering. Development plans in the EAA threaten to change the region, permanently severing the link between Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.”

As the hazy morning heated into afternoon, large adult tarpon began to roll in our skiff’s proximity. Sepia-bronze scales the size of your palm bent light from the sun to the soft waves and back again. I was about ready to offer my soul in exchange for a take, but Andrews and Wittman tempered my expectations. Really, really hard to get the big mamas excited about a strip of dyed rabbit fur this late in the day, they said.

Floridians have become used to tempering their expectations. Every politician and conservation group for three decades has made bold promises about fixing the Everglades. And yet the situation continued to worsen. Can an era of new leadership under Gov. Ron DeSantis and Captains For Clean Water finally turn the tide?

Feature image via Captains For Clean Water.

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