Hell and High Water

Returning Lake Okeechobee’s natural flow will help prevent toxic blooms and other environmental events that strain South Florida marine businesses
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In 2018, the foul-smelling bloom caused widespread economic and environmental problems.

In 2018, the foul-smelling bloom caused widespread economic and environmental problems.

In the age of covid-19, it doesn’t take long to appreciate the things you once took for granted. In a matter of days, millions of workers in restaurants, hotels, barbershops and more went from gainful work to collecting unemployment.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened to tens of thousands of South Florida’s marine and shoreside businesses in 2018, when toxic mats of blue-green algae began smothering the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. The foul-smelling concoction — sometimes mixed with huge expanses of dead fish — closed beaches and waterways on both sides of South Florida. People canceled vacation plans. Others stayed home to avoid the smelly mess. The problems lasted for months, leaving economic and environmental destruction.

When rainwater flows south through the Everglades, it is cleansed as it passes through marshland before emptying into Florida Bay.

When rainwater flows south through the Everglades, it is cleansed as it passes through marshland before emptying into Florida Bay.

Nearly two years after the algae slinked back where it came from, I found myself in a center console in the middle of San Carlos Bay — one of the foul-tide hot spots in 2018 — with Capt. Josh Constantine of Caloosahatchee Cowboy Charters. We were on the hunt for 150-pound tarpon in water that was a beautiful, pale turquoise. “We nailed them yesterday. We got some really nice fish,” Constantine said. “Hopefully they’re still here.”

Constantine has been guiding clients for tarpon, snook, red drum, speckled trout, grouper and other saltwater species for 10 years. He has more than 20 years of angling experience in South Florida. “This and the Caloosahatchee River look very different today than they did in summer 2018,” he said. “This whole bay was covered in a chunky blue-green layer of funk. It made fishing impossible and put me and hundreds of other guides out of business for months to follow. I’ve got four kids. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.”

Around the same time, on the other side of Florida, blue-green and red-colored tides began infiltrating the St. Lucie River estuary, resulting in fish kills and closed beaches, as well as vast die-offs of aquatic vegetation. Fishing guides there, too, were forced to shutter their businesses. Tourism dollars vanished as dead fish washed up on white-sand beaches.

By all accounts, it was an economic disaster for South Florida’s tourism industry. And fishing guides, marinas, boatyards, boat dealerships and a plethora of other marine-related businesses were caught smack in the middle of it. For one group of Fort Myers-based fishing guides, enough was enough. They created Captains for Clean Water, which today operates as a nonprofit. The captains knew they lacked the power to influence water-quality issues, so they enlisted anyone affected by the Lake Okeechobee discharges, not just their fellow anglers and fishing guides.

Capt. Josh Constantine’s Caloosahatchee Cowboy Charters depends on clean water.  

Capt. Josh Constantine’s Caloosahatchee Cowboy Charters depends on clean water.  

“The health of our local waterways affects everyone, not just folks who are on the water every day,” John Lai, president of the Sanibel and Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, said in March at a CFCW media event in Fort Myers. “When the tides came, we very quickly realized that to fix this problem we had to have a united voice, and Capt. Daniel Andrews, Capt. Chris Wittman and CFCW were right there ready to work with us.”

Lai says the only way to fix water-quality problems is for every business owner and resident — restaurants, stores, hotels, motels, fishing guides, property owners, marinas and more — to present a united front. Otherwise, Lake Okechobee will overflow again. The stakes are high. According to CFCW, the fishing industry in South Florida is worth $9.3 billion, and the marine industry an additional $15.3 billion. Tourism accounts for $63 billion. Nearly 1.5 million people are employed in these combined businesses, according to CFCW. And these businesses need clean water.

Going Against the Flow

The problem involves state, county and local governments, as well as a long list of federal agencies. At the March event, Stephen Davis, senior ecologist for the Everglades Foundation, held up a satellite image showing Lake Okechobee, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, the Everglades and Florida Bay.

“As it stands right now, Lake Okeechobee is artificially connected to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers,” he said. “When we experience heavy rainfall, releases must be made to lower the level of the lake, and often those discharges are polluted with nitrogen and phosphorous. Waterborne algae feed on the mixture and, boom, you’ve got an algae bloom that can expand explosively in hours. That’s what happened in 2018.”


Toxic blue-green algae clogged waterways all over South Florida in 2018.   

Toxic blue-green algae clogged waterways all over South Florida in 2018.   

The natural way of things, Davis says, is for excess rainwater to flow south through the Everglades, where it is slowed down and “cleansed” by vast seas of marshland, grass and natural reservoirs before emptying into Florida Bay. Today, the water instead goes east or west to the coasts from Lake Okeechobee, or is diverted for agriculture or water-supply needs. The reduction of this flow of fresh water not only threatens the water supply for 8 million Floridians, but also is increasing the salinity in Florida Bay.

“We used to have thousands of acres of seagrass in Florida Bay, which provided the habitat for robust tarpon, permit and bonefish fisheries,” says Florida Keys fishing guide Capt. Rob Fordyce. “About 40,000 acres of that disappeared in 2015 because the salinities in Florida Bay were so high. The values were so high, in fact, that Florida Bay often now has higher salinities that the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.”

Professional guides, journalists, environmental activists and others attended CFCW’s Restore Gala fundraiser.  

Professional guides, journalists, environmental activists and others attended CFCW’s Restore Gala fundraiser.  

Entire species of fish, he says, have dispersed in abnormal ways as a result. “We’ve got to get that water flowing south again through the Everglades,” he says. “The reduced flows haven’t just affected fishing. I used to see hundreds of rabbits and other wildlife when I drove to Flamingo, Fla., through the Everglades. These days I can go for miles and miles and not see a single one of them.”

With Planning Comes Progress

There’s good news on the horizon, ac­cording to CFCW executive director Capt. Daniel Andrews and program director Capt. Chris Wittman. “We’ve been working really hard at getting these stagnant water projects revived by keeping pressure on our representatives in Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C.,” Andrews said in March. “Things are moving in the right direction in many ways, especially when it comes to getting reservoirs and other water management initiatives such as stormwater treatment areas. There’s no doubt we need to increase the storage and treatment of water south of Lake Okeechobee, and there’s some exciting progress being made.”

Davis says work on the Everglades Ag­ricultural Area is well underway, after projects were delayed for years. That area spans approximately 6,500 acres of wetlands. It is designed to receive water from Lake Okechobee via a canal, store it in a reservoir, then run it through a stormwater treatment area before sending the clean water south through the Everglades. The multimillion-dollar project started in 2019 and is expected to be completed in 2023.

Capts. Daniel Andrews (left) and Chris Wittman co-founded CFCW to draw attention to Florida’s water problems. 

Capts. Daniel Andrews (left) and Chris Wittman co-founded CFCW to draw attention to Florida’s water problems. 

With cause for celebration, CFCW held its fourth annual Restore Gala fundraiser, where more than 400 people, including fishing luminaries and environmental activists, mingled for cocktails and dinner. It’s among two large fundraising events the association holds each year. The other is the Florida Skiff Challenge, which pits boatbuilder teams on technical skiffs against each other on a 1,300-mile race around Florida, from Pensacola to Jacksonville. Last year’s event had thousands following the racers online as four teams ran non-stop from start to finish. This year’s race was slated to have the largest contingent of competitors but was called off due to the covid-19 pandemic.

As the dinner program got underway and speakers began telling their stories, a sensation of unity washed through the tent, a commitment to getting things done with a united voice. Everyone celebrated the success of getting long-dormant projects underway, that clean water in South Florida isn’t just a pipe dream — it’s happening now.

Most people stayed off their boats during the algae blooms, the effects of which rippled through South Florida’s marine industry. 

Most people stayed off their boats during the algae blooms, the effects of which rippled through South Florida’s marine industry. 

The next day, media was with Daniels on the Caloosahatchee, where he said he was happy to see things moving in the right direction. “It’s been a lot of difficult work, but we’ve learned that by working together, you can actually get important things like this done,” he said. “It felt insurmountable two years ago. Today, we feel great about where we’re headed.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.

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