Water Issues Are Not Unique to Long Island

The unique sawgrass, mangrove and “tree island” character of the Everglades. Photo credit: Friends of the Everglades

Water Issues Are Not Unique to Long Island:
Conservation in the “River of Grass”

“The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet.” ~ Marjory Stoneman Douglas, founder of Friends of the Everglades

Guest Author Philip Kushlan, president of Friends of the Everglades, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting, preserving and restoring the only Everglades in the world. Learn more on Facebook or at everglades.org.

The Florida Everglades is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. Home to the American alligator, the Florida panther and countless other endemic species, the Everglades also provides important ecosystem services to South Florida such as replenishing our freshwater aquifers and buffering us from storms and flooding.

The Everglades also face some huge challenges to its conservation. It depends on just the right amount of fresh water flowing through the southern end of the state, in wet years and in dry years. It needs incredibly clean water, devoid of any extra nutrients, or it quickly shifts from the sawgrass dominated ecosystem the rest of the native animals depend on to a cattail dominated one.

Nature gave us the blueprint for how to keep this balance – when it rained too much, the water sheeted across the wide, flat state and the hot Florida sun evaporated the excess. When it rained too little, the porous limestone bedrock sucked up every drop and shuttled it south. The marshes between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades took care of any excess nutrients, sequestering them as plant biomass as the water flowed south.

But that was then. Today, in large part because of the influence of the agricultural industry, water is held back in Lake Okeechobee for irrigation purposes. Decades of pollution from stormwater and agricultural runoff north of Lake Okeechobee have resulted in massive blooms of toxic algae.

When the lake is held too high and a big storm comes, the Army Corps has no choice but to dump the water to the coasts, toxic algae or not, and that’s what happened in the summer of 2016. Our coastal estuaries and their fishing and tourism-based economies were decimated, not to mention creating a legitimate health crisis for the people living there. These toxins have been shown to cause serious respiratory problems and there is evidence that the neurotoxins released may lead to increased instances of diseases like Parkinson’s and ALS.

South of the lake, we lack the land we need for “treatment marshes” to clean the water flowing south to below the 10 ppb of phosphorus that the Everglades needs to survive. In 2018 Florida passed a plan to create a 23-foot deep reservoir south of the lake that included less than one third of the treatment marsh acreage needed to clean the water it can hold, risking us creating a new, “mini-Lake Okeechobee” in the southern end of the system.

Despite these challenges, we have a good idea of how to fix them. Nature, after all, has already provided us with the blueprint. We need to alter the Army Corps lake operations manual to send more water south in the dry season, lowering the lake level so that if a big storm comes, the lake can simply absorb the excess water without discharging toxic algae to the coasts. For this effort to be successful, more land needs to be secured for use as treatment marshes and that takes political will. The best way to generate political will is through grass roots advocacy.

So when people ask what they can do to help solve the problem, I say they can learn about the issues, they can support organizations doing the hard policy work and they can support political candidates who are champions for the cause. But the single biggest thing they can do is to get out there and spend time in these amazing places. Go camping in Big Cypress, go kayaking along the mangrove shores, go for a full moon bike ride along Shark Alley, take a drive around Loop Road or a stroll over alligators down the Bobcat Boardwalk! Take someone who has never experienced these magical places and post your amazing photos on social media!

The Everglades may be a very different ecosystem from Long Island’s North Shore but our conservation challenges are similar. In many ways these conservation efforts are a test for all of us, and the biggest key to success is showing people the reason these places are worth saving in the first place. So, for those of you who may spend time in South Florida this winter, be sure to take a day and see for yourself what makes the Everglades so special and worth fighting for!