Hurricane Matthew’s largest impact to Southwest Florida: Further water quality stress

By Conservancy of Southwest Florida President & CEO Rob Moher

We are all grateful to have avoided any direct impacts from Hurricane Matthew in Southwest Florida, while at the same time our hearts go out to our fellow east coast residents who did not fare as well, and to the hundreds who have died in the Carribean as a result of the storm. It is for all of us, a tragic reminder of the power of nature and the importance of planning ahead for these events.

Unfortunately, Southwest Florida may yet see some of the worst impact from the Hurricane in our estuaries in the days to come. This storm has dropped enormous amounts of rain on already saturated soils to our north and east, generating runoff that ultimately will wash even more pollution into our waterways. It is also putting strains on an already overloaded water management system.

With water flowing not only into Lake Okeechobee but directly on the Lake, it will rise many times faster than the water can exit — even with all the discharge structures opened to maximum capacity. The Caloosahatchee will once again be devastated with high volume polluted discharges, washing out into its estuary and the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact today, the Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville, announced that discharges from a swollen Lake Okeechobee, are going to dramatically increase down the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie rivers. We can expect discharges to roughly double to upwards of 6,500 cubic feet per second flowing down the river and into the estuary, which will add to the significant ecological and the related economic stress already endured.

But this doesn’t have to be.

While we can’t control Mother Nature, we can build a more robust and resilient water management system that better protects the environment and human health and safety. The opportunity exists right now to purchase lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area to divert that Lake water to where it can be safely stored, cleansed and conveyed back south — where it historically flowed and belongs. There is sufficient uninhabited land and the engineering know how to build a spillway to lower lake levels faster; permanently relieving the pressure on the dike around the Lake which in turn, would provide greater protection to Glades communities from the risk of dike failure.

With the passage of Amendment 1, we have the money to finish buying these lands and to build that stronger larger water management system particularly in light of a rapidly growing population base. Senator Negron has crafted a proposal to do so, but will need other Senators’ and Representatives’ support him if it is to be successful.

That’s where we come in.

We have to reach out to our state leaders to push for this now. We may not be able to stop hurricanes but we can certainly be better prepared for when they come, and the EAA holds the key to protecting us all.

Your support is making a difference, but there is more you can do to remain engaged:

  • Contact your state representative and ask them to support in the upcoming Legislative session efforts for buying the EAA land south of Lake Okeechobee
  • Take action and contact Governor Scott and request that the necessary planning steps be executed now to plan for additional storage south of Lake O
  • Sign and share the Now or Neverglades declaration.
  • Attend the upcoming Water Works Luncheon on January 19, 2017