We now know inarguably that environmental health and clean water are priorities to Gov. Ron DeSantis, as to all Floridians. We are heartened by, and we intend to hold him to, his promise of getting our water issues fixed, in getting it done right, and to making the right decisions that bring meaningful improvement, both now and for the future.
His unequivocal stand also makes it clear that our water issues are not “owned” by any one political party over another, or by special interests, which we have been saying for some time. His added assertion that he will “ensure the use of sound science at the state's environmental agencies” aligns with One Martin's own mission to base governmental decisions on facts.
Meaningful environmental decisions should rely on the decades of research by the highly regarded scientists employed by the South Florida Water Management District and by embracing the full context of the University of Florida Water Institute's 2015 report, commissioned by the state, on ending Lake Okeechobee discharges.
It is imperative that the Governor's science team listen to all the experts, not just the most vocal ones, and avoid the temptation to jump on a bandwagon of popular theories. Everyone, it seems, has one of those these days!
Effective decisions require a full understanding of the challenges of federal regulations, endangered species, federal funding commitments, citizens' water and property rights, and the programs that embody Florida's commitment to protecting our water resources.
Caution must be taken by decision-makers to prevent popular opinion from drowning out important voices, such as Dr. Paul Gray's of the Audubon Society, who has studied the ecology of Lake Okeechobee for more than 20 years.
He has already expressed deep concern at the potential for serious, adverse impacts on the long-term health of Lake Okeechobee, on its wildlife habitat and its water-treating marshes, by lowering winter water levels by merely six inches, much less by three or four feet as many of the Governor's advisers now propose.
We do not want to look into our rear-view mirrors with 20/20 hindsight to see that we've destroyed the lake's marshes and the stormwater treatment areas south of the lake, or deprived the Caloosahatchee River of water that would collapse its estuary, which are real possibilities, by drastically reducing Lake Okeechobee water levels in the dry season.
Water could not be moved south for any purpose. The Lake's 12.5 water level quoted as the now-too-high standard for the dry season sounds like enough water, but the number is the measurement of the water level above sea level, not the actual depth, which ranges from six to eight feet, according to Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Lowering the lake to three feet -- or less – would simply be unsustainable.
The marsh grasses and native vegetation that sustains the Lake and helps to clean its waters would die, adding even more phosphorous to the water as the plants decay. We would be inviting significant salt-water intrusion into our coastal water wells and totally deprive those cities that depend on Lake Okeechobee to supply drinking water to hundreds of thousands of residents. The move would wipe out our vegetable farms south of the Lake.
The environmental and economic costs could be staggering. The long-range, unintended consequences by forcing a popular, though unsupported, solution could very well set water restoration efforts backward, rather than moving them forward, as we all want.
Those appointed to the SFWMD Governing Board will be charged with managing millions and millions of gallons of water in real time – in a system altered in a great rush nearly 100 years ago. The position requires a depth of knowledge and understanding that demands comprehensive study, commitment to long-range environmental health, as well as accomplishing short-term objectives by an under-funded agency.
We encourage the public to remember that these are volunteers, who will spend countless hours in one of the most demanding, often-vilified, volunteer positions in the state. We expect the new board members to set aside any preconceived notions in order to approach their new responsibility with open minds and to depend on sound science to guide their decisions.
One Martin supports the Governor's commitment to the environment, and we share his eagerness to make improvements. Without question, the state has the experience, the expertise, and the water studies available to ensure that only science-based decisions are made, free from the influence of special interests of any kind. We just want to make sure that he listens to all of the voices, not just to the loudest ones.