Where Are We and Where Do We Go From Here?

by SC Contributor Jim Metzler

On Thursday, February 28, the Sanibel Community House was packed for SCCF’s 2019 Everglades Update entitled “Investing for a Healthy Estuary and Everglades”. The two speakers were well-known industry veterans Rae Ann Wessel, SCCF’s Natural Resource Policy Director, and Shannon Estenoz, the Everglades Foundation’s Chief Operating Officer.

In her presentation, Wessel discussed where we are now relative to water quality and identified key projects that must be completed and policies that must be implemented to improve the situation. Estenoz detailed the financial justification for why the water infrastructure that was designed to support Florida’s economy in the 1940s must be changed to support Florida’s current and future economies.

Wessel kicked off her presentation by describing how water historically flowed south from Orlando down the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee. When water overflowed the lake, it continued its journey down through the Everglades and into Florida Bay. However, starting in the late 19th century, several projects intended to protect against floods, enable navigation, and support both increased development and agriculture diverted most of the water coming out of Lake O and send that water down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. In large part because of the development and increased agriculture that those projects enabled, the Everglades today are roughly half the size that they were a hundred years ago.

During her presentation, Wessel remined the audience of the water quality disaster that this area experienced last summer and fall. She made the point that there is a lot of focus on the harm to our area that is caused by the discharges out of the Lake O. She pointed out that the Caloosahatchee watershed is almost twice the size of the Lake O watershed and that the Caloosahatchee watershed is a major contributor to the pollutants that impact our water quality. She added that one of the reasons for this is because the Caloosahatchee was dredged and channelized and as a result, has lost a lot of its ability to absorb excess nutrients.

Wessel finished up her presentation by identifying two classes of solutions that can fundamentally improve the quality of our water. The first class of solutions is a set of policies that will help reduce the probability of a future water crisis. Those policies include:

Establish standards and testing for toxins in the water, air and sand;
Perform additional treatment of reuse water;
Reestablish septic inspection and maintenance;
Strengthen fertilizer regulations and enforcement;
Improve land use planning.

The project she identified were:

Implement additional water storage and treatment areas;
Build the EAA reservoir and water treatment capabilities;
Complete the C43 reservoir;
Update the Lake O regulation schedule in a way that reflects shared adversity across all of south Florida.

Estenoz’s presentation reflected the growing realization within the conservation community that investments in projects to improve water quality must be at least partially justified based on their economic impact. The basis of her presentation was that the current water infrastructure (i.e., dikes, canals, levees) was designed decades ago to meet the needs of a Florida that no longer exists, and that Florida must augment the current water infrastructure to meet Florida’s current and future needs.

Estenoz embedded into her presentation key metrics and the associated references that quantified the degree to which Florida has changed and is changing. One dimension of the changes that Florida is experiencing that Estenoz discussed was population growth. In 1900 Florida had a population of roughly 500,000 people. Florida’s population grew to slightly under three million people in 1950 and is projected to reach 26 million people by 2040. Estenoz stated that the water infrastructure that was appropriate to support two or three million Floridians is not appropriate to support well over twenty million Floridians.

A major component of Estenoz’s presentation was how Florida’s economy is changing. Some of the key ways in which Florida’s economy is changing include:

Over the last 100 years Florida’s economy has shifted from a mostly rural agrarian economy to one dependent on population growth and tourism;
In the 1960’s Florida agriculture accounted for 4 times as much of the state’s economy as it does today;
Today farming accounts for around 1% or 2% of the State’s overall employment;
Real estate, retail, tourism, health care, information technology and related industries are the primary drivers of future job and economic growth in Florida;
Spending by out of state tourists accounts for around 17% of Florida’s overall employment.

One of Estenoz’s key conclusions was that the future health of Florida’s economy is critically dependent on a robust tourist industry. However, the nature of Florida’s economy makes it particularly sensitive to events such as the recent red tide and algae blooms. Another one of her key conclusions was that investing in a modern water infrastructure is necessary in order to protect Florida’s economy and that investments in critical projects such as Everglades restoration would generate $4 in benefits for every $1 invested and would also generate over 440,000 jobs.

SCCF’s 2019 Everglades Update ended with a question and answer period. The net result of the event was that the attendees left better informed of the challenges we all face relative to water quality and with a detailed sense of what can be done to overcome those challenges. Hopefully the attendees also left realizing that overcoming those challenges will take a very long time and will require all of us to remain vigilant.

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