Florida: Paradise Unwound

Famed as the fishing capital of the world, Florida is reeling as water crises threaten fish populations and local livelihoods

  • Terry Gibson
  • Conservation
  • Jan 30, 2017

In the crystal-clear flats of Biscayne Bay, fishing guide Bob Branham watches a client cast for bonefish.  These popular sport fish are “nowhere near as plentiful as they were in the 1980s,” says Branham. “Being a fishing guide gets harder every year.”

FOR MOST OF THE SUMMER AND EARLY FALL OF 2016, Florida’s St. Lucie River was in the national news—for all the wrong reasons. Long prized as a legendary fishery and biologically rich estuary that flows into the Indian River Lagoon along the Atlantic coast, the St. Lucie was making headlines for being clogged with putrid, toxic algae so thick it resembled guacamole. And the St. Lucie wasn’t alone.

To the west, parts of the Caloosahatchee River also flowed green, sickened with algae. Its waters feed into Pine Island Sound, Florida’s second largest estuary and home to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge as well as some of the nation’s best sport fisheries for species such as tarpon, spotted seatrout and red drum.

The nucleus of the crisis lay inland, in Lake Okeechobee, the vast liquid heart of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem. Excessive El Niño rains last summer had flushed untold tons of phosphorus and nitrogen from agricultural fields into the lake, along with septic-tank pollutants and tainted urban runoff. The intense rains and the summer’s excessive heat—worsened by climate change—led to the growth of cyanobacteria (often called blue-green algae), organisms that reproduce explosively when fed by heat and nutrient pollution. The resulting bacterial bloom grew to more than 230 square miles, a blotch so massive it was visible from space.

Green Tide’s Grim Toll

Bloated with water, Lake Okeechobee threatened to burst through the aging, earthen dike surrounding it, an event that would have caused catastrophic flooding. To prevent that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District released billions of gallons a day of fouled lake water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

As lake water mixed with the saltier river estuaries, the cyanobacteria ramped up toxin production as a form of self-defense. Eventually, the bacteria began to die and decay, releasing toxins into the water and air. As other bacteria began to consume the resulting slime, they sucked oxygen from the water column, leading to aquatic dead zones.

The crisis took a stark toll. East to west across southern Florida, green tides slopped ashore. People fell ill, beaches closed, seagrass beds suffocated, unknown numbers of fish died, tourism suffered and protests erupted. So widespread was the algal invasion that Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in several Florida counties.

The sportfishing community was especially hard-hit. Valued at more than $7.5 billion a year, Florida’s fishing industry—and the state’s reputation as the fishing capital of the world—stood in jeopardy. “I’m down $160,000 in gross business this year,” said Bruce Hrobak, owner of two bait-and-tackle stores in Port St. Lucie, “and that’s just because of the green water.”

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A toxic tide chokes the St. Lucie River. Across southern Florida last summer, the crisis closed beaches, sickened people and led to fish die-offs.

A Personal Heartbreak

This crisis also hit me hard. I grew up hunting and fishing in the Everglades and have made a career there as a charter-fishing operator, environmental educator and writer. Last summer, I was with my wife and infant son at our home near Indian River Lagoon, not far from the toxic mess. Because of warnings about cyanobacteria’s threat to infants, we evacuated to my mother’s cabin near Cody, Wyoming, to ride out the crisis. We felt like environmental refugees and questioned whether our son may ever know the joys of fishing in relatively healthy Florida waters.

I worry about that answer. The 2016 bacterial bloom was only the latest in a string of water crises that have plagued southern Florida for years. Discharges from Lake Okeechobee have periodically degraded the northern estuaries since the 1930s. As far back as the 1970s, dairy-farm pollution and other nutrients prompted fish kills in tributaries of the lake, one of America’s most celebrated largemouth bass fisheries. In 2015, drought, record heat and insufficient freshwater flows into Florida Bay killed off 80,000 acres of seagrass beds. When I fished there last May, the water was putrid with foggy algae and suspended sediments, and flats that usually teem with baitfish, sharks and stingrays were as still as death.

To understand how southern Florida came to this tipping point, it’s important to understand the history of water management in the state. That history explains the chief cause of the problem—and holds the key to solutions.

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Rampant development along Florida waterways (top) contributes to water problems such as the bacterial bloom last summer that left fishing boats in Stuart mired in muck (left). Protesters of a similar crisis in 2013 begged the state to save the St. Lucie River.

A Problem of Plumbing

The Everglades once comprised a massive, rain-fed series of wetlands, lakes and rivers that flowed in a slow-moving sheet from just below Orlando south into Florida Bay as well as east and west toward the coasts. These waters support the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States—a 360-mile tract running from west of the Florida Keys to the St. Lucie Inlet. They also replenish biologically rich estuaries with vital seagrass, bivalve and mangrove communities that provide essential nurseries for myriad marine species, some of which spend most of their lives offshore, including many species of snapper and grouper.

Nature originally engineered this system to distribute Florida’s water where it was ecologically needed most. Man had other ideas.

Beginning in the 1880s, real-estate and agricultural interests launched plans to drain the Everglades for crops and development. Sugar and citrus plantations, housing complexes and tourist attractions took root. Hurricanes that led to massive flooding around Lake Okeechobee prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a dike around the lake in the 1930s. But more storms and flooding in the face of growing demand for land pushed the U.S. Congress in 1948 to approve the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control and Other Purposes (C&SF). This launched an unparalleled era of human engineering to rein in Florida’s waters.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, state and federal engineers cut canals, installed pumps, straightened rivers, built levees and otherwise directed water where they wanted it to go. The C&SF designated some 700,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), where sugar cane and winter vegetables depend on Everglades waters for irrigation.

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Released last fall to ease strain on the aging dike around Lake Okeechobee, tainted waters race through the St. Lucie Lock and Dam near Stuart, Florida. Such releases carry algae and pollutants that harm local fisheries.

Bordering the EAA, planners carved out three Water Conservation Areas to serve as water holding pens, where levees and pumping stations either release or hold water depending on how flood or drought may affect water demand in agricultural and urban areas. In addition, to relieve strain on Lake Okeechobee’s dike during times of high water, engineers cut canals to shoot lake water east to the Atlantic and west to the Gulf-—forcing too much water through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, respectively, and leaving too little to trickle down to Florida Bay through Everglades National Park.

“It’s a disaster for seagrasses and the delicate balance of salt and fresh water so vital to estuarine life,” says David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Restoration Program. “And it’s a disaster for those who make their living relying on the health of these ecosystems.”

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American alligators, West Indian manatees and roseate spoonbills (clockwise from top) are among the myriad native Florida species that need clean, abundant waters to survive and thrive.

A Crown Jewel in Peril

One of the casualties of Florida’s water crises is Everglades National Park. The Greater Everglades Ecosystem once covered about 11,000 square miles. Today, it’s less than half that size, and the park protects only about 20 percent of what’s left. Dedicated in 1947, the park is now designated as a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance. It supports hundreds of species of birds, reptiles and fish and is home to about three dozen endangered or protected species, including the Florida panther, West Indian manatee and American crocodile.

Equally important, the park filters water into the Biscayne Aquifer, the primary source of fresh water for four densely populated South Florida counties. Yet because water management and climate extremes prevent enough water from reaching the park, it is increasingly parched, putting the ecosystem at risk.

Ironically, Florida has already shown that it can effectively reengineer itself back to ecological balance. Case in point: the Kissimmee River.

Once a meandering, 103-mile-long ribbon running south of Orlando from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee, the river and its floodplain supported everything from waterfowl and largemouth bass to eagles and alligators. In the 1960s, the river was straightjacketed into a 56-mile-long canal, a flood-control project that, by some estimates, reduced waterfowl populations by 90 percent and crippled the bass fishery.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District funded a project to restore the middle third of the river, whose revived marshes, curves and oxbows will slow runoff coming from the Orlando area and allow plants to filter out some nutrients entering Okeechobee. When complete in 2020, almost 20,000 acres of wetlands and 44 miles of the historic channel will be revived—the largest river restoration effort in human history.

Where work has already been completed, the benefits are clear. “Bass, panfish and ducks have rebounded,” says Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate and a driving force behind the restoration. “Native plants and animals that had disappeared have returned and are thriving.”

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In Everglades National Park, mangrove swamps serve as nurseries for abundant aquatic life. The entire Everglades ecosystem depends on a steady flow of clean water—in short supply unless humans act fast.

Blueprint for a Brighter Future

Similar successes are possible across southern Florida, and there’s already a detailed plan in place to make them happen—if stakeholders and politicians unite behind the cause.

In 2000, Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), with more than 60 projects designed to restore water flow to the Everglades while providing flood control and adequate water to urban and agricultural areas. The plan, estimated to cost $10.5 billion over 30 years, includes building wetlands to hold and filter contaminated water and destroying canals that divert water away from the Everglades. Though funding remains scarce and controversy abounds, there’s plenty of progress worth noting:

Tamiami Trail. This route (U.S. Highway 41) has long acted as a dam preventing water from flowing south from Water Conservation Area 3 into Everglades National Park. One mile of the route has now been bridged, allowing water to flow more freely into the park and Florida Bay. Another 2.6 miles are under construction to allow even more flow. That fresh water provides cooling and mixing that’s essential for an estuary to function, particularly during times of high heat and prolonged drought, as Florida saw in 2015.

Stormwater Treatment. Some 57,000 acres of stormwater treatment areas have been built south and east of Lake Okeechobee to remove nutrients from water coming off agricultural fields before release into the Everglades.

Picayune Strand. Nearly complete, this 60,000-acre hydrological-habitat restoration project will revive fisheries in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Florida and restore wildlife corridors for species such as the Florida panther and black bear.

Despite progress, recovery in the Everglades will take time. Stephen Davis, a wetland ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, laments that “it may take 20 years for the seagrass communities in Florida Bay to grow back.” And that’s only if Congress and Florida approve the necessary funding. On the federal level, Congress does seem poised to approve the Central Everglades Plan, a package of CERP projects that would provide vital replumbing and some new flow from Lake Okeechobee. Last March, Florida legislators approved a bill requiring the state to set aside up to $200 million each year for Everglades restoration under CERP projects. Also last year, Florida’s new Senate President Joe Negron began gaining support for a controversial plan to purchase some 60,000 acres in the EAA, removing them from growers to build a reservoir that would store and treat tainted water from Lake Okeechobee. If that happens, it could significantly reduce discharges along coastal estuaries and provide cleaner water to the south—yet battles over the plan make its future murky.

At the peak of the toxic blue-green algae crisis last summer, NWF President Collin O’Mara called it an “utterly preventable disaster.” That’s true, and it’s tragic. The waters of the Everglades should be a source of national pride, not shame, anger and worry that we’re running out of time to restore a national treasure. I just hope that my son will one day know the joy of casting a line into clean, home waters teeming with fish.

NWF Priority

Everglades Call to Action

Last July, the National Wildlife Federation, its Vanishing Paradise program—devoted to restoring wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico—and NWF affiliate the Florida Wildlife Federation signed a letter to the U.S. Congress along with more than 160 other conservation, sporting and business groups to urge funding of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. “Delay is no longer an option,” they wrote. “Our paradise is vanishing today.” To learn more, go to www.nwf.org/evergladesanglers.

Florida-based writer, conservationist and sportsman Terry Gibson writes for many outdoor magazines.

More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF:

Foul-Water Season: Summer Algal Blooms

Everglades Invasion
A Florida Island Battles Green Invaders
NWF Report, Toxic Algae: Coming Soon to a Lake Near You?
Restoring America's Everglades

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