Water is Life – Lake Okeechobee and the Poisoning of Florida

By: Dagny Pottersmith, Shareshten Senior and Rising McDowell

Our
 nation
 has 
a
 water
 problem,
 pronounced 
to
 varying
 degrees
 from
 coast
 to
 coast.

Sifting through the mass of environmental cases concerning water is mentally and emotionally taxing, to say the least. Nearly all issues in the United States involving this essential resource are tied to environmental policy, which intersects with water policy, law, and resource management. The enactment of environmental legislations is thus far the best response to the question the people have been asking our government for years: “What about the LIFE that depends on the environment and its natural resources?”

The mountain of pollution and corruption at hand is undoubtedly chaotic, but in eye of the storm is a clear-blue sky of reason when it comes to water. The bottom line is simple: water is life. In the past few months, this truism has become a living prayer, a compelling societal mantra and a call to action (and a trending social media hashtag!) Nevertheless, you may not be aware that as you read this, the precious waters of Florida and the most diverse estuary in the nation are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. Once again, despite water-toxicity so severe that several counties have declared a state of emergency, this crisis has yet to be acknowledged on the federal level.

Currently, Florida is at the tail end of hurricane season, hoping that Herbert Hoover Dike will last through the year.. The almost 100-year-old dike, which has been deteriorating for decades, has long been a topic of conversation in Florida. Through it, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is draining an average 1.7 billion gallons of polluted wastewater per day into a vast and delicate system of waterways home to thousands of unique animal and plant species (Perry 2016.) This water, which used to be only mildly polluted, now carries a load of toxic chemicals from statewide agricultural and landscaping runoff (read: highly carcinogenic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, heavy metals, animal waste, nitrates from fertilizer and manufactured agro-nutrients.)and spiritually replenishing; a planet that provides sweet, juicy fruit, life-giving water, and ineffable beauty. Such cosmic awareness pollinates our spirit. We are offered a special kind of healing as we dwell in deep presence, sipping on creation’s nectar. This kind of healing happens when we are close to Source energy, the Creative essence, the life force vitality that flows through us all. We all resonate with different conduits of Source energy—music, art, cooking, writing, dancing, you name it— and we often feel our greatest emotions through these expressive media. Among these, one is exceptional, a kind of language written in the DNA of all beings: Nature.

Don’t Obstruct the Flow

Florida’s delicate water system originally flowed from a chain of lakes near Orlando down through the Kissimmee Basin to Lake Okeechobee- a lengthy process that took six to eight months to complete. The water then gradually flowed south from the lake, through the Everglades to the Florida Bay. This process was essential to the health of surrounding ecosystems (Perry 2012).

A plan for a dike was proposed after hurricane winds in 1928 blew a record amount of water out of the lake, flooding all of Central Florida and resulting in thousands of deaths. At the request of the state, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed levees around the lake in order to mitigate potential future flood damages. The people, freshly traumatized by the 1928 flood and subsequent deaths, simply saw the dike as an immediate solution to their plight. Kathy Martina, a South Florida Water Management District representative, explains that at the time of the dike’s construction, environmental repercussions of obstructing the natural flow were not taken into account (Randolf 2014.) Construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike began in 1932 and was completed in 1936 when 143 miles of various water-retention structures had been built (USACE 2000.)

Lake Okeechobee’s waters no longer flow south intothe Everglades as they initially did. Now they are held within the lake, building up until they are released at the hand of the USACE through eastern and western estuaries at an average rate of nearly 1.7 billion gallons per day (Perry 2016.)

TCPalm, a subsidiary of USA Today, hosts a live page on their site that has tallied over 180 billion gallons of water released into the St. Lucie this year. An active timer is counting the minutes since the USACE has been continually discharging without pause. You’ll find the link to this site in our ‘action steps’ at the end of this article. The SYJ staff sincerely hopes that when you read this, you take a moment to explore the infographics for yourself.

The USACE tries to keep the lake between 3.8 and 4.7 metres (12.5 and 15.5 feet) above sea level to lessen the strain on the dike, which is considered one of the country’s most at-risk-of-failing and in need of, in the USACE’s eyes, “rehabilitation.” (Gattone 2016)

In their June 2016 report, “Herbert Hoover Dike Project Update,” the USACE reported that over $500 million have been spent on renovations since 2007, and $400 million more is projected for “urgent rehabilitation” to “reduce the risk of catastrophic failure” of this “aging structure.” (USACE 2016.) Sadly, this comes as no surprise: any wall intended to counteract nature’s course is ultimately doomed to fail.

Climactic Change in the Sunshine State

An estuary is a magical place- an intersection of polarities, if you will. The mouth of a river meets the salty sea tides, creating a swirling pool of delicately balanced brackish water (slightly salty; a mixture of freshwater and saltwater.) This diverse and pristine eco-system was intelligently designed by mother nature to flush the veins of our earth into the cleansing bathtub that is the sea. In Martin County, FL, where SYJ founder Shareshten Senior grew up, lies the most diverse estuary in the nation, home to over 4,000 animal and plant species- dolphins, sea turtles and seahorses included! (SFWMD 2016)

Lake Okeechobee has been polluted for the past several decades from local runoff laden with nitrogen and phosphorus. In brief, phosphorus is a naturally occurring element that is essential in small quantities to biological life. When it excessively accumulates in surface waters, it contributes to a condition known as eutrophication- the acute overgrowth of plankton, HABs (harmful algal blooms) and other marine plants that consume a majority of oxygen in the water, suffocating and killing other marine life en masse (Env. Lit. Council 2015.)

With an entire ecosystem hijacked by algae, there is little chance for any animal life to survive, and no chance for animal life to thrive. While most algae is non-toxic, the HABs taking over Florida produce domoic acid, a neurotoxic acid deadly not only for sealife, manatee and birds, but also humans, dogs and livestock. (Pruett 2013.) HABs are a guaranteed death sentence for fish, dolphins, pelicans, shrimp and prawns, crabs, lobsters and countless other invertebrates. Any animals managing to survive in the toxic slime are undoubtedly severely poisoned, weakened, diseased and nearing their inevitable end if conditions do not change.

Big Sugar kills more than the people

This is not a new issue. The citizens of Florida have efforted for decades to diplomatically hold the sugar industry, A.K.A. Big Sugar, who occupies most of the surrounding land, accountable for the pollution of Lake Okeechobee. The reason we are now coming a critical precipice is that in recent years we have seen a considerable increase in colossal monoculture farming operations such as “vegetable farms, citrus groves, cattle ranches [and] dairy farms…” The ‘phosphorus fire’ has spread to “neighborhoods as far north as the Orlando suburbs, where lawn fertilizer, animal waste and other sources of phosphorus wash into the [Kissimmee] river.” (Flescher 2016)

It is difficult to acknowledge that the responsibility for the contamination falls on the backs of the residents and local farmers in addition to agro-business. Nevertheless, Big Sugar it is still accountable for a majority of the historic buildup that still remains, as well as the heavily polluted runoff that makes its way into the Everglades Protection Area (Flescher 2016.)

A major campaign contributor in Florida, Big Sugar has repeatedly lobbied against proposed strategies for the restoration of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. As Andy Reid reports, in 2010 the South Florida Water Management District put forward “$197 million to buy 26,800 acres from U.S. Sugar to use for Everglades restoration” (Reid 2015.) Big Sugar has since poured funds from its bottomless jug into lobbying against its own agreement. As Reid goes on to say, “Gov. Rick Scott took office… [and] opposed the original U.S. Sugar deal. Now as governor he gets to appoint the water management district’s board members.”

One of the more difficult aspects of addressing any environmental concern, especially when it comes to water, is the complex nature of policy and law, and moreover, what it takes to enforce such legislation effectively. As a technical report from the University of Florida clearly states, “the ability to change water management in substantial ways in south Florida is constrained by a number of laws that protect the rights of existing legal users of water…” (Graham et al. p.27 2015.) This challenge is compounded when elected officials fail to address the suffering of their own constituents, favoring a big cash bonus from big-agro.

Business Ain’t Boomin’

Algal blooms are a horrifying sight. The bright green muck and froth clings to shorelines and emanates a heinous stench akin to manure, driving tourists and locals far away from any recreational activities near these contaminated bodies of water.

The toxicity from the blooms threaten local fishermen’s livelihoods, as residents and visitors are being advised to avoid consuming fish caught in algae laden waters (Sabalow 2016.)

When the beach gets shut down, any town whose economic well-being rests on bustling restaurants, retail stores and hotels, will surely suffer.

As South Florida surf photographer Nicola Lugo told Surfline Magazine this June, “this is a very serious issue on so many levels. The fish are dying. We’re not able to enter the water. And our tourism is based on clean water. If there’s no tourist industry, you might as well turn Florida into one gigantic, toxic farming disaster.”

Algal blooms are also a threat to human health. As Matt Pruett writes, one of the toxins found in blue-green algae “has recently been linked to triggering neurological catastrophes like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease” (Pruett 2016.) “Too much of the Pseudo-nitzschia algae… causes a buildup of domoic acid in marine organisms that can be lethal to humans. An outbreak of the algae shut down the Dungeness Crab fishery along much of the West Coast [of the U.S.] last year” says Justin Housman, a writer and editor for the Huffington Post.

This issue has become about so much more than the environment. Once-robust local economies are now suffering, and human health is on the line. The natural world can no longer be overlooked while those in power are paid and excused for their criminal negligence.

We are the Protectors

Among the muck and mire are community figures like Evan Miller, whose non-profit organization Citizens 4 Clean Water helps the people defend Florida’s waterways. Miller told SYJ, “we’ve been trying to make as much noise as we can, and we’re getting people educated, but the real problem is a lack of political will. We need to get enough people fired up to hold these officials accountable to do their job and start making some permanent solutions to save Florida’s water.” As a matter of fact, to do so would be to act in accordance with the Florida State Constitution, which clearly states environmental protection as a priority (D’Alemberte p.45 2011.)

“There’s no question that we are seeing more harmful blooms in more places, that they are lasting longer, and we’re seeing new species in different areas,” says Pat Glibert, a phytoplankton expert at the University of Maryland. “These trends are real.” (Welch 2016)

Regardless of where you live or where you might move, algae blooms are making appearances all over the world, from Alaska to the Arabian Sea; Greenland to Chile. On the Pacific Coast of the United States, 2015 saw the largest, longest-lasting and most intensely toxic algal bloom ever recorded (Stephens 2015.) Man must give up playing God, put down the gun and stop building dikes and dams that clog the veins of our earth and impede her natural cleansing processes.

We the People are being called upon to protect all our sacred waters. We must be the protectors we have been waiting for. The environmental issues we face today are systemic; they require effort from all fields and factions of society, and direct participation from all who depend on clean water. That means you!

We will continue to get stronger as we build local networks and further educate ourselves. We need only to remember such simple truths as these: water is life, we are in this together, no amount of money will keep us alive when the vital ecosystems of the world are gone, and money is no match for the power of a people who have come to realize their unified potential.

May we all join together in this global mantra: Water is Life.

Be sure to check out our Musical Medicine feature for traditional Native prayers to heal the waters.

Works Cited:
D’Alemberte T, & Florida. 2011. The Florida State Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fleshler D. 2016. Algae problem stems from decades of lake okeechobee pollution. Sun Sentinel Local News.
Gattone L. 2016. Florida, state of emergency declared as algae blooms threaten local ecosystems. Lifegate News. Environment.
Graham WD. 2015. Options to Reduce High Volume Freshwater Flows to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and Move More Water from Lake Okeechobee to the Southern Everglades. University of Florida Water Institute.
Hollander GM. 2008. Raising Cane in the ‘Glades: The Global Sugar Trade and the Transformation of Florida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Perry MD. 2016. Florida’s ocean and coastal future. Florida Oceanographic Society. June 2016.
Perry MD. 2016. Stop killing the estuaries and everglades. Florida Oceanographic Society.
Pruett, M. 2016. South Florida beaches closed due to blue-green algae, industrial pollutants. Surfline Magazine.
Randolph A. 2014. Student Documentary: An estuary’s story. Florida Institute of Technology.
Reid A. 2015. Water district rejects buying sugar land for everglades restoration. Sun Sentinel Local News.
Sabalow, R. 2016. California’s summer of slime: Algae blooms muck up waterways across state.The Sacramento Bee.
South Florida Water Management District. 2016. St. Lucie River and Estuary. Projects by Region, Coastal Watersheds.
Stephens T. 2015. Spread of algal toxin through marine food web broke records in 2015. University of Santa Cruz Newscenter.
The Environmental Literacy Council. 2015. Phosphorus cycle. 2016: 1.
US Army Corps of Engineers. 2000. Lake Okeechobee and Herbert Hoover Dike: A summary of the engineering evaluation of seepage and stability problems at the herbert hoover dike. USACE Jacksonville District.
US Army Corps of Engineers. 2016. Herbert Hoover Dike Rehabilitation Project Update.
Welch C. 2016. Ocean Slime Spreading Quickly Across the Earth. National Geographic.
Dagny was born and raised in Boulder, CO, and is a senior Environmental Studies major at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. She is passionate about wandering the land, praying with the Earth, loving humans and other living creatures, singing songs and speaking words, eating yummy food, planting seeds, and yoga, the path of practice. Dagny aspires to live simply, and to make an offering of her life to the Most High, moment by moment.