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7 Things to Know about South Florida’s Water

The condition of South Florida's water is a puzzle we are still trying to solve.

For more than a century, we have built canals, levees, dikes, dams, and reservoirs, all in the hope of getting the right amount of clean freshwater into the right places at the right times.

We’ve drained the swamp. We’ve changed the course of mighty rivers and put them back in place. We’ve spent billions to move massive amounts of water this way and that.

However, we are still struggling to get Florida’s plumbing right. What’s the problem, and what are we doing about it?

1. What are the problems with Florida’s water?

Despite our best efforts, Florida is plagued by frequent outbreaks of red tide and blue-green algae that can be toxic to sea life, animals, pets, and even humans. Toxic algae blooms have led to states of emergency that have closed beaches and restricted fishing over large sections of our east and west coasts.

We careen from having too much water during the rainy season to near-drought conditions during dry months. Excess rainfall in the rainy season forces flood managers to flush billions of gallons of freshwater into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, while further south, drought conditions in the Everglades are so severe that harmful wildfires are common in what was once a “river of grass.”

Further south, the lack of freshwater has altered the salinity of Florida Bay, damaging one of the most sought-after sportfishing locations on the planet.

2. Why does this happen? A little history.

Historically, Florida’s water followed the barely perceptible downward slope of the peninsula, from north to south. A raindrop that fell into the Kissimmee River Valley (near present-day Disney World) would eventually find itself flowing into Lake Okeechobee.

When Lake Okeechobee reached flood stage, the water would overflow and continue its southerly course through the Everglades and, eventually, into Florida Bay. The water glided across the land in a phenomenon known as “sheet flow,” which allowed the water to seep underground and replenish the Biscayne Aquifers – an underground body of water that provides drinking water for 5 million people in Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Broward counties, and the southeastern part of Palm Beach County.

Along the water’s southerly route, plants and soil would soak up excess nutrients and minerals, an important cleansing process that restored water quality.

3. What happened?

Decades of growth, development, and agriculture have changed the face of South Florida, and with it, the pathways for billions of gallons of rainwater.

Two structures in particular – a dike built south of Lake Okeechobee and the Tamiami Trail highway (Route 41) – both reduced the flow of water into the Everglades to only a trickle.

Today, two-thirds of the water that once flowed into Florida Bay is now diverted, with much of it wasted – flushed east and west into our coastal estuaries for flood control.

Drought conditions have destroyed wildlife habitat and made the Everglades more prone to wildfires. While wildfires are a natural part of the Everglades’ history, uncontrolled fires such as the one in April 2020, which destroyed more than 1,200 acres of wildlife habitat, are the price we pay for decimating the natural flow of water through the Everglades.

Meanwhile, billions of gallons of freshwater that would have naturally flowed into the Everglades are instead flushed east and west, giving rise to toxic algae blooms on both of Florida’s coasts.

4. What about the quality of Florida’s water?

The miles of dikes, levees, and canals didn’t change only the quantity of the water. The quality was affected, too, as tons of nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture and human development washed into the watershed.

Once in the water and under the hot South Florida sun, the fertilizers give life to microscopic algae that harm the life-giving seagrass below, and can be toxic to fish, wildlife, pets, and humans.

The algae blooms, in turn, force states of emergency that close beaches and restrict fishing, wreaking havoc on regional tourism, recreation and real estate

5. How do Florida’s water challenges affect Floridians’ lifestyles?

Water is essential to life, and in Florida, it also is an economic engine that fuels $94 billion in annual tourism spending, and $12 billion in yearly local and state sales, hotel, and excise taxes, according to Rockport Analytics, LLC. When our waterways suffer, our economy suffers, too.

At the turn of the 20th century, the St. Lucie River and Estuary along Florida’s southeastern coast was known as the “Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World.” By 1923, however, the State of Florida constructed a canal connecting Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie to enhance agricultural development south of the lake, and before long, sediment from the lake ruined tarpon fishing completely. Today, the Treasure Coast, Gulf Coast, and their estuaries are affected by toxic algae blooms and nutrient pollution impacting the tourism, real estate, recreation, and fishing industries that are vital to the Sunshine State’s economy.

6. Is there a plan to fix Florida’s water challenges?

In 2000, The Everglades Foundation and its committed partners helped drive Congressional authorization of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. A landmark piece of legislation, CERP outlined 68 separate public works and water infrastructure projects to be implemented over a 30-year period.

Everglades restoration will build resilient and multi-benefit water infrastructure that will restore the carbon sequestration capacity of the ecosystem and protect our communities and local economics, which are among the most vulnerable in the country to climate change. It also will protect the drinking water supply for more than 9 million Floridians, restore the health of diverse ecosystems, and directly support the recreation, tourism, real estate, and other sectors that define Florida’s $1 trillion economy.

Instead of wasting precious freshwater, Everglades restoration will store it in reservoirs to the east, west and south of the lake. The water will then be purified over 60,000 acres of manmade wetlands so it can safely nurture the Everglades, protect the Biscayne Aquifer, and restore the freshwater balance to Florida Bay.

7. How is restoration progressing?

CERP dictates a complex funding arrangement whereby the federal and state governments shared construction costs equally, subjecting the plan to the unpredictable nature of the legislative budgeting process at both the federal and state levels.

While substantial progress has been made in recent years – with several CERP projects having broken ground or nearing completion – nearly all of the projects have yet to be completed.

Want to help?

Armed with world-class science, The Everglades Foundation’s Science and Advocacy teams continue to make an undeniable case for increased funding for Everglades restoration. Join them by making your voices heard in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. Tell your elected officials and neighbors that Everglades restoration matters to you, your family, your real estate, your business, and the future of Florida.

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