THE WILD CHEF

Fish­er­men have pro­posed a way to re­store the Ever­glades and South Florida rivers, but will their idea ever become a re­al­ity?

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By Hal Her­ring

What’s the per­fect com­fort food on a cold win­ter’s night? Duck pot pie. By Jonathan Miles

BLACK, TOXIC WA­TER was flow­ing into the Caloosa­hatchee and St. Lu­cie Rivers. Fol­low­ing the rains of Hur­ri­cane Irma in Sept. 2017, the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers be­gan dis­charg­ing highly pol­luted wa­ter—bil­lions of gal­lons of it— from Lake Okee­chobee into the South Florida rivers to pre­vent the flood­ing of agri­cul­tural land to the south, but at the same time poi­son­ing some of the rich­est game­fish habi­tat in the world. This was hardly a first. In the sum­mer of 2016, the Corps had dis­charged more than 200 bil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter from Lake Okee­chobee, set­ting off a chain of catas­tro­phes. A 239square-mile bloom of toxic al­gae had been spread­ing across the lake all sum­mer, and when that wa­ter was re­leased, the Caloosa­hatchee and St. Lu­cie were flooded with it. Beaches were closed. Peo­ple fell ill. Fish died. Of­fi­cials ad­vised peo­ple to stay away from the very wa­ters that had made this part of Florida one of the na­tion’s most fa­mous fish­ing des­ti­na­tions. It was the worst the pol­lu­tion had ever been, but the dis­charges hap­pen ev­ery rainy year in South Florida. So when the black wa­ter poured into the rivers again this past Septem­ber, peo­ple knew what to ex­pect. “It’s eco­nomic free fall,” a St. Lu­cie fish­ing guide told me on a re­cent trip to Florida. Wa­ter dumped from Lake Okee­chobee had dev­as­tated the lo­cal fish­ing and tourism in­dus­tries and killed the St. Lu­cie’s sea­grass beds— nurs­eries for grouper, snap­per, seatrout, red­fish, and more. The damming of Lake Okee­chobee ne­ces­si­tates these dis­charges and cuts off the Ever­glades and Florida Bay, one of the world’s great­est salt­wa­ter fish­eries, from a fresh flow of wa­ter. Fish­er­men, con­ser­va­tion­ists, and guides are now work­ing dou­ble time to save the St. Lu­cie and other South Florida rivers. Their goal is to find a way to send wa­ter south out of Lake Okee­chobee, rather than dis­charge it through its canals and es­tu­ar­ies. This would not only help re­store the rivers but would also re­vive the

There’s no wa­ter-pol­lu­tion event in all the U.S. that comes close to the mag­ni­tude of this one, and it is per­fectly le­gal.

Ever­glades and Florida Bay. But the mam­moth Florida su­gar in­dus­try, which in many ways holds the key to solv­ing the pol­lu­tion prob­lems, has shown lit­tle in­ter­est in help­ing. Mean­while, the losses in Florida are reach­ing a break­ing point.

WA­TER WOES

This disas­ter is in­ter­twined with the his­tory of Florida. For mil­len­nia, the Kis­sim­mee River twisted through cen­tral Florida be­fore flow­ing into the 730-square-mile Lake Okee­chobee to the south. In rainy sea­sons, Lake O, as lo­cals now call it, over­flowed its south­ern brim, and the wa­ters con­tin­ued down into the Ever­glades. This sheet of wa­ter, 60 miles wide in places and as shal­low as 6 inches, moved across 11,000 square miles of track­less wilder­ness un­til it reached Florida Bay, just 100 miles south. This is the river that made the Ever­glades. This is the river that fed the Bis­cayne Aquifer, which sup­plies 8 mil­lion peo­ple with drink­ing wa­ter. But this river is now pretty much gone.

Af­ter a dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­cane in 1928, the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers built the Her­bert Hoover Dike to con­trol Lake O, and set about drain­ing and open­ing lands to the south for farm­ing. In 1948, 470,000 acres of these newly drained lands were es­tab­lished as the Ever­glades Agri­cul­tural Area (EAA). That same year, the Corps be­gan chan­nel­iz­ing the Kis­sim­mee River to the north of Lake O, open­ing tens of thou­sands of acres for farm­ing, ranch­ing, and de­vel­op­ment. Over the decades, runoff from these new com­mu­ni­ties and farms found its way into the stag­nat­ing Lake O, cre­at­ing the al­gae blooms we see to­day. All the while, south of the lake, the EAA kept grow­ing and now to­tals some 700,000 acres, nearly 500,000 of which are de­voted to su­gar pro­duc­tion, and whose ex­is­tence de­pends on the Her­bert Hoover Dike.

Su­gar is a fickle crop. Too lit­tle wa­ter dries it. Too much drowns it. So, dur­ing rainy years, Lake O must be drained to pre­vent flood­ing in the EAA, and to pro­tect the towns within it. Rather than run that risk, in the 1930s, the Corps be­gan send­ing large dis­charges of pol­luted Lake O wa­ter west down the Caloosa­hatchee River to the Gulf, and east down the St. Lu­cie Canal to the In­dian River La­goon, on the At­lantic coast. There’s no wa­ter-pol­lu­tion event in all the U.S. that comes close to the mag­ni­tude of this one, and it is per­fectly le­gal.

“The dis­charges have been killing us off ev­ery rainy year, for over 30 years now,” Ru­fus Wake­man, a vet­eran St. Lu­cie fish­ing guide, told me, as we sat out­side the River Palm Fish Camp. “This was one of the most vi­brant fish­eries I’ve ever been a part of, and the degra­da­tion we’ve seen is just in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.” The 2016 dis­charges he wit­nessed in the St. Lu­cie eclipsed those of pre­vi­ous years, and the ones this Septem­ber wreaked fur­ther havoc. But as bad as the pol­lu­tion has been, the key con­cern, Wake­man said, is Florida Bay and the Keys.

Ever since the con­struc­tion of the Her­bert Hoover Dike, the Ever­glades Na­tional Park has been dry­ing out from a lack of wa­ter from Lake Okee­chobee; by some es­ti­mates, nearly half of South Florida wet­lands are al­ready gone. Sim­i­larly, the Bis­cayne Aquifer, de­prived of any recharge, is drop­ping fast, with salt­wa­ter in­tru­sion in­creas­ing. Florida Bay has lost more than 50,000 acres of sea­grass, and with it the bone­fish, seatrout, tar­pon, and reef and off­shore fish that were born and had shel­tered there. “No­body can be­lieve that we’ve let the prob­lem go this far, when we know ex­actly how to fix it,” Wake­man said.

THE FIX IS IN … LIMBO

Peo­ple have known the so­lu­tion to South Florida’s wa­ter prob­lems for nearly as long as they’ve been suf­fer­ing from them. The sci­en­tific con­sen­sus is that there’s only one fea­si­ble so­lu­tion: Con­struct a flow way from Lake O through the EAA to the south. The flow way will curb fu­ture dis­charges but will need to be planted with enough wet­lands veg­e­ta­tion to clean the wa­ters of pol­lu­tants. As the cleaned wa­ter flows south, it’ll re­store the Ever­glades, recharge the Bis­cayne Aquifer, and bring a bal­ance of fresh and salt­wa­ter to Florida Bay. This so­lu­tion has been around since the 1990s, but no solid plan has been put into ac­tion. Over the past decade, the su­gar in­dus­try has taken a hard stand and re­fused to sell land to cre­ate the flow way. How has the su­gar in­dus­try man­aged to block ev­ery ma­jor restora­tion ef­fort? Ac­cord­ing to the Mi­ami

Her­ald, from 1994 to 2016, the two ma­jor su­gar com­pa­nies in the EAA con­trib­uted nearly $58 mil­lion to state and lo­cal po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, which may help ex­plain it.

Af­ter the sum­mer of 2016, Florida Se­nate Pres­i­dent Joe Ne­gron de­cided some­thing had to be done. He sup­ported a pro­posal to cre­ate wa­ter­stor­age reser­voirs on ex­ist­ing state lands and on some leased lands south of Lake O, to avoid fu­ture dis­charges. But no ex­act acreage for the new wa­ter-stor­age reser­voirs has been es­tab­lished. “We are still try­ing to de­ter­mine what we will get,” Dawn Shirreffs, of the Ever­glades Foun­da­tion, told me. Will the reser­voirs stop the dis­charges? “It can help,” she said. “It won’t elim­i­nate the dis­charges, but it can help.”

It’s a baby step in the right di­rec­tion. The Army Corps of En­gi­neers is putting bends back in the Kis­sim­mee River, try­ing to re­con­nect the river to its flood­plain, to let some of the pol­lu­tion set­tle be­fore it gets to Lake O, an­other positive step. But the ques­tion re­mains whether Florida will have the po­lit­i­cal will to fix the sys­temic prob­lems plagu­ing its wa­ters. Grass­roots groups like Bull­sugar are try­ing to drum up sup­port from an­glers to pres­sure leg­is­la­tors to act. For Wake­man, the goal is sim­ple. He re­mem­bers watch­ing tar­pon roll through the St. Lu­cie and snook bust the sur­face—sights no one now could imag­ine. “I’m like ev­ery­body else from here, work­ing on this year af­ter year,” he said. “I just want to see clean wa­ter in my life­time.”

Hit the Poles A flats guide gets his an­gler into po­si­tion on Florida Bay.

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