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Combating the Water Quality Attack on the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Guest Blog submitted by the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society
September 21, 2018

A recent blog on this site discussed how outbreaks of both blue-green algae and red tide in the waters of the of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (DDNWR) on Sanibel Island have combined to create a devastating ecological impact.  Massive releases of nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee (Lake O) into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers and their estuaries has served to augment contaminated runoff from riverside agricultural and residential lands leading to the worst toxic blue-green outbreak in living memory.  At the same time, a prolonged outbreak of red tide along the SW Florida coastline has compounded the problem and, although not unequivocally proven, the preponderance of scientific evidence now suggests that nutrient-rich releases into the Gulf exacerbate the red tide problem.

During July & August of this year, a persistent and severe red tide necessitated the removal of over 300 tons of dead fish from the island’s beaches by the City of Sanibel.  And the negative impact is not only ecological and environmental but also financial in an area that depends heavily on tourism as an economic driver.   The Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce reported a 41% decline in island business for the month of August.  The unfortunate reality is that both blue-green algae blooms and red tide outbreaks are getting worse in terms of frequency, severity, and duration.  And, although particularly severe in Florida, this is not an issue unique to this geography.  Harmful algae blooms in our waterways are an environmental hazard in all fifty states.

Adverse water quality is by no means a new problem for SW Florida or the DDNWR.  Nor are the periodic excessive releases of contaminated water from Lake O that contribute so damagingly to its ecological impact.  In fact, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society (DDWS), the Friends group that supports the DDNWR, has been aggressively advocating on this issue for a number of years.  We recognized long ago that there is no silver-bullet to solve this problem.  If there had been, it would have already been implemented.  Rather, we are dealing with an extremely complex ecosystem that requires multiple, diverse, costly and time-consuming solutions to correct.

The Society’s extensive advocacy efforts on this issue continue to focus in three major areas:

  • Establishing positive relationships with those officials who are the relevant opinion leaders and decision makers to make them aware of the destructive impact of contaminated water on the wildlife and ecology of the DDNWR
  • Engaging our Society membership, visitors, and social media contacts to request positive action and support from their elected representatives
  • Partnering with other organizations that share our water quality concerns and commitment to corrective action            

In recent years, the Society has hosted visits by numerous elected Federal and State representatives.  Invited guests also have included the Florida leadership of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal agency charged with the management of Lake O; and board members of the South Florida Water Management District, the responsible state agency.  In 2018 such visits have included Senator Bill Nelson’s Chief of Staff,  US Congressman Francis Rooney and State Senator Lizbeth Benaquisto. 

Periodic visits are also made to the home offices of these same people to update them on the situation.  Society President Mike Baldwin and Advocacy Committee Co-chair Jim Metzler have made visits this year to the HQ offices of the SFWMD and to the South Florida HQ of the Army Corps of Engineers.       

DDWS issues a weekly newsletter, “Ding” on the Wing, and this has been used extensively in recent months to educate and engage readers in the water quality issue, its threat to the Refuge, and to request that they contact the appropriate elected officials to register their concern and request support.  Each such posting will generally include candidate language for readers to use in such contacts as well as user-friendly contact links.  Analysis of reader response to these posts has been encouraging.

And throughout, the Society continues to partner with other organizations dedicated to positively resolving these same water quality issues.   Current partners include entities like the City of Sanibel,  the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) and the Everglades Coalition (EVCO).

The health of the nation’s Everglades is intrinsically linked to water quality in South Florida.  The man-made diversion of water, which historically flowed exclusively south from Lake O, into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers has contributed significantly not only to the water quality problems mentioned above, but also results in a lack of fresh clean water to adequately feed the Everglades and Florida Bay.         

As a result, DDWS has been particularly involved in EVCO, an alliance of over 60 local, state, and national conservation and environmental organizations dedicated to full restoration of the entire Greater Everglades Ecosystem.  Until recently Mike Baldwin served as co-chair of the organization and Jim Metzler is currently an active participant in EVCO affairs.

So what must now happen to help resolve the above water quality issues and protect DDNWR for our children and grandchildren?  Funding and implementation of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) are critical.  This plan was authorized by Congress in 2000 to restore, preserve, and protect the entire south Florida ecosystem including the Everglades.  It covers 16 counties over an 18,000-square-mile area in central and southern Florida with the primary goal of capturing and cleaning contaminated fresh water that now flows to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and redirects it to areas that need it.   The SFWMD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have an agreement to equally share the costs of implementing CERP between the state and federal governments. To date, Florida has invested nearly $2.3 billion to finish CERP and the federal government has invested about $1.4 billion.

CERP is comprised of roughly 70 projects,  of which few have been started and even fewer have been completed. The original estimate was that completing CERP would cost $8.2 billion and would take 30 years.  A 2017 report updated that estimate stating that completing construction of CERP projects would take more than 50 years and would cost $16.4 billion. That same report also pointed out that while there has been some progress toward restoring the Everglades, project implementation has been considerably slower than expected due to several factors, such as appropriations levels and delayed project authorization.

A critical CERP project, with an estimated decade-long timeline for implementation, is the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) storage reservoir designed to significantly reduce the need to discharge water from Lake O into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.   As such, the construction of the EAA reservoir is of critical importance to the health of the DDNWR.

One of the primary ways that the Federal government authorizes and subsequently funds CERP projects is to pass a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).  In June, the U.S. House of Representatives approved WRDA 2018 (H.R. 8) which authorizes CERP projects, including the EAA reservoir.   The Senate still needs to act on their version of the bill, America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (S. 2800).  Note that while WRDA is necessary to authorize projects, it doesn’t fund them.  Congress must subsequently approve funding for some or all of the projects authorized by WRDA in annual Energy and Water Development appropriations bills.

What can you do to help address this situation?  The immediate need is to request that the U.S. Senate also authorize WRDA 2018.  While both Florida Senators Nelson and Rubio have urged Senate leadership to schedule a vote, with the mid-term election approaching, time is running out and a vote could be postponed until the Lame Duck session of Congress in November.

Please take action and click here to ask your U.S. Senators to vote to approve WRDA 2018.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2018/09/combating-the-water-quality-attack-on-the-j-n-ding-darling-national-wildlife-refuge/

1 comment

  1. Bill Valerian says:

    Please act now to approve WRDA 2018. This is a critical piece to the long term solution of improved water quality for the State of Florida.

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