It looks as though we are nearing the end of the dry season, but the drought covering much of the Everglades persists. Drought events in South Florida reveal the great inequity in water allocations, and the symptoms are exacerbated by 70-year old infrastructure that prevents water from flowing south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Everglades was compartmentalized by infrastructure and the flow of water constrained by its accompanying operational rules to meet irrigation demand in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Lake Okeechobee. Lake levels are allowed to rise to ensure EAA irrigation supply. When the lake gets too high, water is purged to the east and west to maintain flood protection. The purging of water coincides with rainy periods and is devastating to coastal communities. Meanwhile, as drought envelopes South Florida, the Everglades is starved for water and diminishing water supplies in the lake are prioritized for the EAA.
March 2020, the driest March on record, was an excellent example of this. The EAA received 40 billion gallons of lake water to irrigate mostly sugar farms. While these farmers received their desired water allocation in March, nearly 1 million acres of the state-managed Everglades wetland in the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) received only 15% of that volume in the form of runoff. This runoff water is so polluted that it needs to be cleaned by a $2 billion network of Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) funded largely by taxpayers.
The WCAs were conceived as part of the original 1950s infrastructure to store and recharge water for Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties. However, operational rules of the previous century still prioritize water for the EAA over maintaining downstream Everglades wetlands and recharging the primary water supply for more than 5 million people.
Everglades National Park, a globally-renowned environmental treasure, is the lowest priority in terms of water allocation. In March, Everglades National Park received less than 0.5% of what was used for EAA irrigation, impairing wading bird and alligator habitats, increasing fire risk, and degrading the health of Florida Bay.
With the current infrastructure and operational rules, EAA agriculture enjoys all the water it wants. In contrast, the public:
- pays to clean the polluted runoff that goes to the WCAs,
- suffers the consequence of an over-dried Everglades and diminished primary water supply during drought, and
- endures discharge of polluted lake water that fuels toxic algae and devastates communities on both coasts during wet periods.
This South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Map illustrates the locations of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA; in green), the Stormwater Treatment Areas (in blue), the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs; in light blue) and Everglades National Park (in orange).
Water allocation favoritism toward the EAA has led to decades of pollution and reduced flow to the Everglades, the consequence of which has been loss of native habitats, fisheries declines, repeated water shortages, toxic algae outbreaks, losses in real estate value, and impacts to tourism. This is why both the infrastructure and the rules that govern water allocations must change, and it is the reason why we have the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
The Everglades Foundation has led the way in advancing Everglades restoration, starting with getting CERP authorized by Congress in 2000 and, more recently, through our science-based advocacy and outreach. Our hard-fought successes have not gone unnoticed. Opponents like the sugar industry continue to be unwilling to share the public’s water while finding any opportunity to demand more at the public’s expense. Thanks to supporters like you, The Everglades Foundation stands ready to protect the Everglades and OUR water.
Over the past few weeks, under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, an effort was made to insert “savings clause” language into a Congressional water bill to skew operational rules for Lake Okeechobee in ways that would further impede Everglades restoration. Since then, The Everglades Foundation has established that lake operations should be independent of Everglades Restoration and should not further hamstring our efforts to send water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. Fortunately, the U.S. Army Corps and the South Florida Water Management District agree. This fight is not over.
We knew our work was influencing this issue when we experienced a coordinated media attack by our opponent’s paid proxies. These attacks are easy to spot, involving absurdities such as “the environmental community wants to take our water” and they want “to outsource our nation’s food supply”. They even went as far as calling us “anti-farming” and “anti-American.” Congressman Rooney took it upon himself to issue a response highlighting the sugar industry’s deceit while referring to The Everglades Foundation as a “great partner” and “instrumental” to Everglades restoration successes.
What has become clear is that there is a growing understanding among the general public, business groups, and even elected officials that the water at issue is the public’s water (OUR water), and removing the EAA’s stranglehold on the OUR water is essential to protecting OUR environment and OUR economy. Florida is better served with Everglades restoration which enables water to go from Lake Okeechobee south through Everglades National Park and into Florida Bay. This is where the water went historically and it is where it is most needed. This is the mission of The Everglades Foundation and, with your continued support, we will realize a restored Everglades.