It’s Not Somebody Else’s Problem — It’s Mine, and It’s Yours, Too

We’ve been living here in the Sunshine State for about three months. Most of our boxes are unpacked (except in the garage — don’t look in the garage!) and we even have some photos hanging on the walls. I’ve had pleasant strolls by the ocean and the river…but the experience has not quite been what I dreamed it would be. While I envisioned  beautiful, clear water and lazy days at the beach, the reality has at times been murky…and deadly, at least for the fish.

The Indian River flows out in front of our home. Every day the sun catches on the waves and paints light patterns on the floors and walls. I can sit on the porch and watch pelicans and other sea birds soar overhead. It would be peaceful and soul satisfying if it weren’t for the stench. The river is dying. A multitude of factors over the past decade have led to algae overgrowth. The algae chokes out the oxygen, and then the fish die. Most of this nastiness has been happening to our south, but yesterday on a walk I came upon gunk and dead fish a mere three miles from home. If the wind blows from that direction, the smell of dead things permeates what could have been an idyllic scene.

There’s been a great deal of finger pointing among politicians and policy makers but not a lot of action. I’ve since learned that Florida voters in 2014 approved Amendment 1  allowing the state to

…dedicate 33 percent of net revenue from the existing excise tax on documents to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund…to acquire and improve conservation easements, wildlife management areas, wetlands, forests, fish and wildlife habitats, beaches and shores, recreational trails and parks, urban open space, rural landscapes, working farms and ranches, historical and geological sites, lands protecting water and drinking water resources and lands in the Everglades Agricultural Areas and the Everglades Protection Area.

Yet instead of using this money to clean up the pollution, the Governor and legislature are instead using it for things that used to be paid for in the general budget, such as paying the salaries of the state’s forestry service. Governor Scott also cancelled a deal to buy up property south of Lake Okeechobee and use it to build wastewater treatment plants. The lake is the source of much of the nastiness that is now invading Florida’s rivers, thanks to fertilizer runoff from farms that border the lake and from the growth of subdivisions on land that was previously just sawgrass. The issues behind the sickly water are complex, but scientists think they have found workable solutions to the problem. The trouble is, politics got in the way. The entirely Governor-appointed South Florida Water Management Board that makes decisions on water management is comprised of:

  • Chairman Daniel O’Keefe — an attorney with Shutts and Bowen
  • Vice-Chairman Kevin Powers — a partner with Indiantown Realty Corporation
  • Sam Accursio — a 2000-acre farm owner who believed his crops were damaged from previous SFWMD policies
  • Rick Barber — CEO of Agnoli, Barber & Brundage, a civil engineering/land development company
  • Sandy Batchelor — a tax attorney with a master’s degree in forest conservation and Co-CEO of The Batchelor Foundation
  • Clarke Harlowe — President of Southeast Landscape Management
  • Mitch Hutchcraft — VP of Real Estate, King Ranch/Consolidated Citrus LP, the largest citrus grower in the United States
  • James Moran — an attorney (partner) with Reed, Griffith & Moran
  • Melanie Peterson — a realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty; has a BA in Geography, Environmental Resource Analysis

So Governor Scott appointed three attorneys, two realtors (one with a BA in Geography), two farm growers (one of which is the largest citrus grower in America and the other who doesn’t like moving water through the Everglades because the practice made his farm too wet, damaging his business), one land developer and one landscaper….all to take steps to manage Florida’s most precious resource: water. Essentially, he put the fox in charge of guarding the henhouse. 

Just looking at the facts without emotion, does anyone else see a problem with this group of people tasked with keeping our water safe? What about a water resource engineer? Or a hydrologist? A water scientist? A water quality specialist? There are people out there whose entire expertise is centered around managing water quality. Instead of appointing those kinds of people, Governor Scott appointed people who have a financial interest in what is done with Florida’s water.

So the water keeps getting dirtier and the rhetoric keeps getting nastier and now there are floating dead pufferfish in front of my house.

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So far in 2016, 366 manatees have died (only 80 of these were from boating collisions) and the region has seen massive fish-kills. But what about people-kills?

Florida lakes and rivers and seashores contain cyanobacteria and the flesh-eating bacteria vibrio vulnificus. As of yesterday, Florida has seen 23 cases of vibrio vulnificus in 2016; 5 of these patients died from their infection. Since 2008, there have been 251 cases of flesh-eating bacteria victims; 78 of these victims died. In 2008, the entire state had 16 cases; last year the count was 45. Fish kills are one thing. How many PEOPLE have to die before we take action?  This man was fortunate; many others are not.

When I told my friends and family I was moving to Florida, they jokingly sent me photos and videos of alligators and told me to be careful:

I checked. Florida alligators have killed 23 people since 1948….yet Florida’s vibrio vulnificus has killed 78 people since just 2008. Hmmm….23 deaths in 68 years from alligators…and 78 deaths in 8 years from dirty, polluted water.

Clearly, cleaning up Florida’s water is about saving lives and saving livelihoods.

Elected officials and candidates: take notice. Senators Nelson and Rubio, Representative Posey, State Representative Crisafulli and Senator Altman: I’m researching and watching your actions. I will give my vote to those who take concrete steps to clean up the waters of death. Signing the Neverglades declaration would be a great start. In fact, if you sign it, you’ll get my vote. If you don’t, you won’t.

Take your cue from United States Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who is leading the charge to do something about this crisis. She wrote a detailed letter to Governor Scott, outlining specific steps he can take to restore health our waters:

  • Call for a special session of the state legislature to find short and long-term solutions
  • Replace the water management board with scientists, engineers and conservationists
  • Create a plan to clean up septic tanks
  • Use Amendment 1 funds to buy land south of the Okeechobee River

When will you act, Governor Scott?

We are smart, creative people who should know better. Even our children know we’ve dropped the ball on this.

As my daughter said, as she looked at the scum and saw the dead fish floating by the pier:

History won’t look kindly on us. We are the generations who torched the Earth and poisoned the oceans, wearing clothes and playing with toys made by slaves in all but name in Southeast Asia, claiming moral superiority over our ancestors who did what humans do best – wait, and make it somebody else’s problem. 

It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s my problem and your problem. We can’t bring back those 78 souls who died in the past eight years from Florida’s filthy water. We can’t bring back the dead dolphins, manatees, and fish. But we CAN use our voices and our ballots to insist that our government leaders change course. Florida friends, contact your elected officials and ask them to sign the Now or Neverglades Declaration (you sign it, too). Click here to find your representatives. Ask them to pressure Governor Scott to take the steps suggested by Congresswoman Graham.

Non-Florida friends, you can help, too. Contact your United States senator and representatives and ask them to provide political pressure.  The Army Corps of Engineers control the dam on Lake Okeechobee, so there is some federal oversight to leverage.

Let’s remember: our elected officials work FOR us. So let’s give them their marching orders before vibrio vulnificus claims more victims and cyanobacteria destroys Florida’s tourism, fishing, and outdoor industries. It’s not up to somebody else. It’s up to us.


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