Everglades Officials Say ‘Keep Their Feet to the Fire’

The initial moves of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis aimed at Everglades protection and restoration won strong approval from Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, but also a warning that continued vigilance of public officials is necessary if Everglades restoration is to become a reality.

“This is a new day,” Eikenberg told a standing-room-only audience at the Captiva Yacht Club Thursday morning (Feb. 7) of the post-election attitude changes about Everglades restoration in the governor’s office. “But we will have to keep their feet to the fire.”

Eikenberg praised DeSantis for his call for the resignation of South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) board members who renewed leases for state land targeted for Everglades restoration to sugar growers, as well as his executive order calling for significant funding increases in Everglades restoration and water resource protection projects.

He had particular praise for the governor’s appointment of Sanibel’s Chauncey Goss to the SFWMD.

“Gov. DeSantis’s first appointment of Chauncey Goss to serve on this water district allows us to sleep well at night,” he remarked. “Chauncey brings experience, and to have an individual that understands the budgeting process bodes well for all of us.”

Dr. Stephen Davis, senior ecologist for the Everglades Foundation, said his organization is working as a science-based organization on restoration and research projects. He added that it also is working with more than 20 school districts throughout Florida on projects to educate the next generation about the value of the Everglades and its importance to the overall health and economy of the state.

For some who are involved in the restoration effort, he explained, the goal is saving the wildlife of the Everglades – especially 70 threatened plant and animal species that live there. For others, it is protecting the state’s water supply, or preventing algae blooms and Red Tide.

According to Davis, the natural flows of water from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades were altered by agricultural interests when a series of dikes, dams and highway projects were built.

“We changed all of that,” he said of the natural flows of water, “not out of malice, but largely out of ignorance.”

Since construction of the Herbert Hoover Dam, the Tamiami Trail and other projects, about half of the Everglades have been lost, Davis explained. Water that used to go south from the lake and be purified by the Everglades before going into Florida Bay at the southern tip of the state, now goes east and west down rivers to the estuaries.

During rainy seasons, too much water polluted with fertilizer runoff goes into the estuaries, he explained. During the dry season, it is too little water.

“In the southern end of Florida, in Florida Bay, it is the mirror image of what is happening in the estuaries,” he said. “Instead of receiving too much fresh water, it isn’t receiving enough.”

This causes sea grass to die off, which is necessary to filter the water, provide a habitat for fish to breed and hold sediment in place.

According to Davis, restoring the Everglades is complicated, involving raising parts of the Tamiami Trail to allow water to flow south through the Everglades, building reservoirs to store water during the rainy season and release it during drought periods, cleaning up the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee, and various other “plumbing projects.”

The phosphorous and nitrogen that seep from the agricultural and sugar cane fields into Lake Okeechobee then flow down the rivers into the estuaries fueling blue-green algae and ultimately the Red Tide that plagued this area last summer.

“We are exacerbating the problem,” Davis said.

Eikenberg concluded the presentation, stating, “The science is clear. What has been lacking has been the political will.”

According to Eikenberg, much of what has been done in the past has been “window dressing.”

Turning back to the election of DeSantis, he added, “What is different is that we now have a governor who wants to see change in the next two years – not the next 25 years.”

But Eikenberg said change will require massive amounts of money, and not just for one-time projects but steady funding over a period of time. It also will require not just state money, but substantial federal funding.

“This generation is going to fix this problem,” he concluded. “The political will is here, but we need to stay engaged. This generation has a tremendous opportunity, but it has to be ‘we,’ and not just our elected officials.”

Questions from the audience varied from the impact of climate change and warmer water on contributing to algae blooms to specifics about how to contact local political officials to encourage them to act.

Responding to a question about the health impacts of algae blooms and Red Tide, Eikenberg said there are “serious health concerns” about exposure to the toxins they produce, adding that research is underway into potential links between that exposure and neurological problems such as Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases.

“The health component of this is a major, major issue,” Eikenberg said.

As for the impact of climate change, Eikenberg claimed that warmer water temperatures will invariably cause algae to grow and reproduce faster, creating more and more of a problem.

“Although we can’t do much alone about climate change, there is a lot we can do to control our pollution problem,” he concluded.

In addition to Thursday’s presentation by the Everglades Foundation, the Captiva Island Yacht Club is sponsoring a guided “River of Grass” airboat tour of the Everglades on Feb. 20.

According to Yacht Club officials, about three times the number of people have signed up for the tour than the 34 people the airboat can accommodate.

They said the club is looking at arranging additional tours.

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