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December 11, 2007

Trouble in Paradise

Skyrocketing populations bring the Sunshine State water-management challenges

Trickledown Effect
The natural trek of water down the state, through Lake Okeechobee and out into sensitive saltwater estuaries, has always been a hot topic in Florida. Over the years, the state has implemented different projects to cleanse this water of harmful nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, before it has a chance to spawn deadly estuarine algal blooms. As urban development creeps closer to wetlands, however, natural watersheds continue to become channelized, increasing the likelihood of nutrient invasion. 
 
Capt. Rick Murphy of Homestead reports that the terrible blooms of the mid-1980s and 1990s in Florida Bay seem to be a thing of the past. Scientists who monitor water conditions also agree that quality has been fairly stable in this region. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP), a $7.8 billion, 30-year plan enacted in 2000 to protect and preserve the state's water resources, certainly has helped create better conditions in this southerly region.
 
Unfortunately, other areas, such as the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries on the east and west coasts, have recently fallen victim to huge amounts of polluted freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee, resulting in horrendous water qualities and a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Donald Fox, a 25-year Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biological administrator, says CERP's current challenge lies in securing large parcels of land north of Lake Okeechobee in which to store and cleanse water before either releasing it to tide or moving it into the supply for human consumption and use.
 
 "The biggest problem now," Fox claims, "is that over the last few years real estate got so pricey and developed that it's very difficult to find blocks of land that you can use to store water."
 
The Florida Department of Environ-mental Protection in 2001 instituted a 10-year, $3 billion program called Florida Forever, intended to purchase and protect environmentally sensitive lands. It often targets spring watersheds, according to DEP public information officer Yasmin Wallas. But the sheer numbers of people pouring into the state has overwhelmed many efforts, making the situation even direr.
 
"South Florida is running out of water," says Joe Boyer, Ph.D., associate director of the Southeast Environmental Research Center at Florida International University. "You go up the west coast into Naples, and they're out of water. They'll be drinking their sewage soon. Most of these restoration projects are designed to conserve water for human use rather than to rehydrate natural systems. Pretty soon there won't be much water to lose to the oceans, because we'll need it for drinking and growing citrus."
 
Cessation of freshwater inflow would present a frightening scenario for estuary health and saltwater fishing. With human health potentially at risk, the stakes have been raised, and many state officials say that only now is the situation garnering the critical attention it deserves.
 
"We're behind the curve here," Fox says. "It's really about human existence and our future in the state of Florida."

Diminishing Returns
In light of these overwhelming environmental and societal challenges, issues such as boating access seem trite - unless you find yourself among the legions of saltwater anglers throughout the state who face more and more difficulty just getting their craft on the water, let alone catching fish.
 
It's no secret that the real-estate boom had an enormous effect on the face of coastal Florida. Many locations once home to public boating access points, such as marinas and boathouses, were sold for big profits to covetous developers who then turned them into private-use facilities. 
 
In Steinhatchee alone, Kroll says, three public marinas have shut their doors in the last two years.
 
"They've been turned into private resorts and condominium/marina communities," he says. "We only have one paved public boat ramp now. It's really terrible. It's a good ramp, but there's no parking. People have to walk 3/4 of a mile on weekends. It's a huge issue."
 
The hurricanes of 2004 also took a tremendous toll, ruining many small waterfront businesses, according to Patricia Harrell, the FWC's boating-access coordinator.
 
"A lot of little marinas that were damaged had submerged-land leases, and [developers] came in, threw down a lot of money and said, 'We'll take over your  submerged-land lease, but we'll build  condos or dockominiums.'"
 
A spokesman for the state's Department of Community Affairs, which oversees development in Florida, says there's no way to quantify how much coastal land has been developed since 2000 or how much more is currently available for development.
 
The situation affects not only private recreational anglers; it's created issues for the charter industry, making it more difficult for captains to earn a living.
 
"My dockage expense has more than tripled in four years," Rosher says. "When I was a kid, we'd see tackle shops on the water. There was one in Miami Beach that you could ride your boat right up to. Waterfront real-estate value has changed the face of what is on the water. I'm not going to say boatyards and marinas are numbered, but they're certainly shrinking, and therefore escalating prices on all related services."

What To Do Now?
It's easy to get pessimistic over the many challenges facing Florida, but Rosher claims much upside still exists, noting that increased restrictions on fish harvest and the pelagic longline and inshore net bans have kept stocks fairly healthy and the charter business rolling along.
 
Government officials add that while many challenges lie ahead, this is precisely the time to step up, rather than sit back and groan.
 
"The only way to avoid a bleak outlook is to apply a huge amount of public pressure," says John Hunt, an FWC program administrator.
 
Boyer claims that as long as the population continues to increase, it's vital for each citizen to become more efficient. "We've got to decrease the per capita usage of our natural resources," he says.
 
Thomas Eason, Ph.D., FWC's conservation initiatives coordinator, says the Florida 2060 report is a "call to action." He claims that now is the time for more citizen involvement in local and state government activity and meetings.
 
"If this is not what we want our state to look like, we all need to work collectively to change it," Eason says. "There are all sorts of three- to four-county votes that are fairly important. They're not glamorous, but it's really where the rubber meets the road. As Floridians, we have the responsibility to step up and change things if we don't like what we see. It's the only way to look at things today."