2018 versus 2019: Florida’s water crisis idle, but not over

Image source: Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Memorandum, Caloosahatchee & Estuary Condition Report released June 11, 2019

Here we are, living out a beautiful Florida summer—one that’s defined by our iconic vibrant water, reports of incredible fishing, and the return of visitors to our beaches.

Thoughts of last year’s “lost summer” are but a distant memory. We breathe a sigh of relief, but clean water now doesn’t mean the problems have been resolved and the same threats that destroyed our water still remain.

Why is our water quality vastly different this year? What’s being done to prevent future disasters? In this post, we’ll look back at a few of the factors that contributed to the 2018 water crisis, how things were different in 2019, and future prevention efforts.

Disclaimer: This information is intended to illustrate that 1) Florida’s water quality issues are multi-faceted, 2) the sequence of variables that affect water quality is ever-changing, and 3) there is a solution.

There is not a singular cause of our water quality issues. In 2018, Florida experienced a chain of worst-case events, circumstances, and actions, that led to a disasterous situation for estuaries around the state. Some factors are within control, some are uncontrollable, and some are consequential, but combined, they all impact our water quality. The better you understand this relational concept, the better-suited you are to form your own opinions and perspectives on future issues.

A Look Back

In July 2018, we were neck-deep in the worst water crisis Florida has arguably ever experienced. Record rainfall, massive discharges of polluted fresh water, and a questionably-motivated water management district, all combined to help fuel this widespread water quality disaster.

Toxic blue-green sludge suffocated our waterways and red tide lingered for months, leaving dead marine life scattered along 300 miles of Florida coastline. Businesses suffered, vacations were cut short and cancelled, residents feared for their health, and Florida made national headlines—and not in a good way.

Just to name a few. While there are still many issues impacting water quality around the state, the magnitude to which our waters improved in a year is astounding. To better understand the 2018 water crisis versus a year of relatively good water, here is a chart highlighting a few key factors that collectively impacted our water quality.

2018 and 2019 Key Factors Impacting Water Quality

South Florida Water Management District

  • The powerful, tax-levying agency responsible for protecting and managing our water resources.

2018

Governing board serving special interests.

The previous governing board made decisions that favored special interests over the public, such as renewing a lease with Florida Crystals for land slated for the EAA Reservoir.

Public outrage prompted a spotlight on their actions and the demand for their resignations.

2019

Governing board serving the public.

A new board was appointed as a result of public demand and is now made up of individuals who share our concerns, making significant strides to protect our water quality.

Rainfall Levels
Fort Myers levels shown as sample

  • Rainfall directly affects the water level in Lake Okeechobee.
  • Florida rainy season is May through October.

2018

Above average rainfall.

12.77 ” in May (normal 2.64″)

Lake levels jumped 6 feet in 2017, largely due to Hurricane Irma, followed by heavy rainfall in May 2018.

Source: USclimatedata.com

2019

Average rainfall.

5.57” in May

Brought no significant or unexpected water level changes.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Water management strategy

  • Attempts to keep Lake Okeechobee level between 12.5 to 15.5 feet.
  • Currently manages lake level by discharging “excess” water to the coast via Caloosahatchee & St. Lucie Rivers.
  • Water is discharged at a rate measured in cubic feet per second (cfs).
  • 500 to 1,000 cfs = desired flow for Caloosahatchee River, needed to balance salinity.
  • 0 cfs = desired flow for St. Lucie River.

2018

Began high-volume discharges June 1, continued through summer.

3,000 to 7,800 cfs to Caloosahatchee
Up to 1,800 cfs to St. Lucie

Heavy rainfall and high lake levels, combined with a fear of more rain, led to massive discharges throughout the summer.

2,800 cfs is the high-flow “ecological harm threshold” established by water managers for the Caloosahatchee.

USACOE later admits to knowingly releasing water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers containing toxic cyanobacteria and harmful algal blooms.

2019

Began low-volume discharges in February, minimized need for high-volume discharges during rainy season.

1,500 to 1,800 cfs to Caloosahatchee
250 to 500 cfs to St. Lucie

Low rainfall and low lake levels maintained by low-volume releases, mitigated need for high-volume summer discharges.

Blue-green algal blooms visible on Lake Okeechobee, but no visible cyanobacteria at sample testing sites. The lower rate of discharges has helped prevent toxic algae from reaching the coastal estuaries.

Red Tide
Known as Karenia brevis (K. brevis)

  • A naturally-occuring algal bloom that originates offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Depletes oxygen in the water and releases toxins that kill marine life and may cause illness to humans.
  • Sustained by nutrients from pollution sources.

2018

Significant presence of red tide.

Originated in October 2017 and persisted for 17 months.

Devastated marine life, killing thousands of tons of baitfish, game fish, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, even a whale shark.

Red tide bloom was possibly intensified and sustained by nutrients from toxic blue-green algal blooms.

2019

No presence of red tide.

As of February 2019, the presence of red tide has been non-existent at sample testing sites.

Lake Okeechobee Water Levels

Below is a graphic representation of the Lake Okeechobee water levels from July 2017 to July 2019. This illustrates the significant water level spike after Hurricane Irma in October 2017, followed by the heavy rainfall event in May 2018 that led to the high-volume, devastating discharges.

Captains For Clean Water - Lake O Levels

The Water Crisis Brings Progress in 2019

  • Florida received the largest amount of funding for Everglades restoration in state history. This means there’s a significant spotlight on water quality issues and efforts; from media to conservation groups to the informed public eye, this creates an arena where elected officials and government agencies are held accountable.
  • New Lake Okeechobee management manual coming soon. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has shown willingness to change their operations procedures in order to avoid harmful, large-scale discharges and is in the process of developing the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). “The purpose of this effort is to reevaluate and define operations for the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule that take into account additional infrastructure that will soon be operational.” Expected completion of the manual is September 2022.
  • Key priority projects. There are more than two dozen projects that must be accelerated and completed in order to provide improvements to water quality, water quantity, and water supply for Florida. Collectively, these will help achieve the greatest benefit for Everglades restoration. The projects are detailed on SFWMD’s website.

The Big Picture: We Must Send Clean Water South

Infrastructure projects, operating manuals, record budget, various agencies and stakeholders, policy and procedures, bureaucratic complexity, outward opposition, emails, paperwork, approvals, denials, meetings upon meetings; the path to progress is littered with red tape. For every step forward, it took countless people and calculated actions to get there.

It’s not realistic to think that the southward flow of water can be restored overnight, but every project completed gets us incrementally closer. Progress is a process. It requires a vigilant public who speaks up and takes action which drives political will that turns to policy, which becomes new law which eventually leads to the benefits that we all want to see: clean water and healthy estuaries at all times.

Changing operations alone won’t fix the problems. We need critical infrastructure projects completed in order to store, treat, and convey more water south. The EAA Reservoir is predicted to cut Lake Okeechobee discharges by over 50%. The Tamiami Trail project will remove significant barriers to flow, allowing more water to reach the Everglades and Florida Bay where it’s desperately needed. We can’t simply cross our fingers and hope the rain won’t come.

Closing Thoughts

It begins to sound redundant, almost, to keep repeating this message. The truth is—for decades, scientists have said the solution is to send water south. So why weren’t we seeing progress at the highest level? The difference between now and then is awareness.

A lack of public awareness has historically allowed special interests and corrupt politics to dictate where our water goes—or doesn’t go. The 2016 and 2018 water crises may have sparked national attention, but it’s because we’ve refused to “shut up” that we’ve been able to keep the focus on water quality and move the needle.

This progress is only possible because of you. Without your efforts to get involved, get educated, and spread the word, the smoke and mirrors would continue, and the greater public would remain oblivious to the injustice happening in our backyards.

Thank you for seeing the bigger picture. For understanding the process. And for spreading the word about Everglades restoration—even when the water is beautiful and the fishing is good.