Science academy: Everglades restoration won’t fix water quality in Caloosahatchee, estuary

Harmful algae blooms have crippled parts of the region in recent years, with…

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Watch time lapse video as dappled sky lights up the Everglades

Watch time lapse video as dappled sky lights up the Everglades

Andrew West, News-Press

Water quality throughout the historic Everglades has become more concerning for many scientists and environmental advocates in recent years as many of Florida’s ailing waterways continue to decline.

Harmful algae blooms have crippled parts of the region in recent years, with the blue-green, freshwater version blanketing estuary canals and river systems and red tide raging along the coast.

A recent example of the growing concern over water quality is Progress Toward Restoring the Everglades: The Eighth Biannual Review from the National Academy of Sciences.

The report, released last month, is littered with references to water quality concerns.

The News-Press compared the most recent review with the Seventh Biannual Review and found that the words “water quality” were used 277  times in this most recent version, compared to 90 time the previous version. 

That’s more than a three-fold increase and is statistically meaningful to Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. 

“They’re saying perhaps you need to recalibrate the Everglades restoration,” Cassani said. “It’s a relevant part of the discussion now because even if you get the hydrology right, the water’s so polluted that it causes blooms and life support system problems.” 

The Everglades restoration is the largest hydrological project on the planet, and costs have rocketed into the billions of dollars since it was approved more than 20 years ago. 

Recent estimates suggest it may take 65 years or more to complete the work at the current rate of funding. 

The restoration is largely based on restoring hydrology to a more historic state, to get larger volumes of water flowing from just south of Orlando to the Florida Keys again. 

Restoring that flow and cutting down on nutrients flowing south are part of the plan, but the Everglades restoration, the report pointed out, won’t necessarily solve all the water issues in the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary. 

Called the Central Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP, the restoration of the Everglades was scheduled to be mostly completed at this point when it was first approved in 2000. 

“CERP planning has not rigorously considered the potential impacts of impaired water quality on its ecological goals. Understanding the collective impacts of hydrology and water quality in meeting restoration goals and stakeholder expectations is essential to support ongoing CERP and non-CERP management decisions,” the summary report reads. “If the impacts of water quality are not well understood, CERP water management projects may be unfairly blamed for failing to meet expected outcomes.” 

The report specifically mentions “the northern estuaries,” which are the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. 

The connection from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee river was ditched and deepened decades ago, and it is at times the major receiver of lake discharge water. 

“The CERP will help address freshwater inflow concerns in all of the estuaries but it is only part of the solution,” the report says. “CERP ecological restoration goals, particularly in the northern estuaries and Biscayne Bay, cannot be met if water quality and associated algal blooms, which are outside of the direct purview of the CERP.”

Cassani said water quality in some cases is trumping water quantity, timing and distribution. 

“We can make some progress in terms of getting the water right in terms of volume,” Cassani said. “(But) the narrative has shifted (to water quality).” 

Daniel Andrews with Captains for Clean Water said he wants to see more success stories, like increased Everglades restoration money for the next federal budget. 

“The water quality side of it, if that’s what they’re focused on, that’s one more thing we need to focus on as these projects come online,” he said of the report. 

He said some existing infrastructure needs work as well, such as the Stormwater Treatment Areas, or STAs, that filter water from farming operations. 

“How long are the STAs going to work,” he said rhetorically. “We’ve been trying to work so hard to get more (STAs) and at some point it seems like they’re going to be tapped out.” 

More: Army Corps working toward new release schedule for Lake Okeechobee, Everglades system

More: Wading bird season coming to a peak, with thousands of birds nesting in Florida Everglades

More: Boaters’ cleanup is latest citizen-led effort to help improve SW Florida’s water quality

More: Environmental group points to urbanization, agriculture as top reasons for Florida’s ailing waterways

Many coastal regions in the 16-county historic Everglades have suffered harmful algae blooms since 2016. The Fort Myers-Cape Coral area weathered a red tide that lasted 17 months, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. 

Several coastal estuaries are in a degraded state, with water quality actually getting worse in some areas. 

The report mentions Indian River Lagoon, where several hundred manatees have died this year due to starvation, from a lack of sea grasses to feed on. 

“The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, including parts of the Indian River Lagoon, have been greatly altered by high and extremely variable freshwater discharges that bring nutrients and contaminants and disrupt salinity regimes,” the report reads. 

Matthew Schwartz with South Florida Wildlands Association said he wasn’t surprised to see the words “water quality” more often this year when he skimmed through it.

“For water quality and there are three main sources of degradation: agriculture, ranching and development,” Schwartz said. “We have (failing) septic systems and occasional sewage plant leaks, and those aren’t going down in numbers.” 


Schwartz said too many Everglades restoration projects focus on using ditches and drainage mechanism to move water when cleaning the water with vegetation is the real solution. 

“We’ve gone in the wrong direction,” he said. “The money should be spent on restoration of weltands. That would remove the source of pollution but add something that can improve the quality of the water.” 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter. 

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