TALLAHASSEE – With portions of Florida's east and west coast waters clouded in dark, murky pollution, many of the Sunshine State’s coasts appear barer than ever, and it’s not from tiny swimsuits.
Polluted water from Lake Okeechobee is rushing into the ocean at 70,000 gallons per second, David Guest, the managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Florida office, wrote in a recent blog post.
The black waters are harming marine life, scaring away visitors and causing “severe economic losses” for businesses, Gov. Rick Scott stated in an executive order addressing emergency pollution management.
In response to the economic hardship and public frustration, Scott declared a state of emergency on Feb. 26 for Lee, Martin and St. Lucie counties. The governor’s office is calling for President Obama to provide federal funding to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike.
According to Guest, heavy rain and the weak dike led to water managers releasing massive amounts of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee, through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, and into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.
While the lake’s pollution issue may be more blatant today, with social media highlighting the black water spreading across the ocean, the weak dike and polluted water are not new issues.
Similar funding was requested in 2013 to fix the dike. At that time, the governor released a press statement calling for “the federal government to meet its obligations in maintaining the federally operated Lake Okeechobee dike system and fulfilling its cost-share obligations to the state of Florida for environmental projects.”
In the same release, Scott also committed to speed up the C-44 Storm Water Treatment Area project by making a $40 million investment, which would “reduce the time needed to complete this project by half,” and “clean diverted water from Lake Okeechobee and storm water runoff year-round.” Two years later, dike repairs and better treatment methods are still needed.
“We need the president to fully fund the $800 million in needed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike so discharges are no longer needed," Scott stated in a press release in February.
A few days after the state of emergency release, Scott also announced the activation of an emergency operations center for Florida’s businesses. He commissioned the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) to assess the financial damages that the Lake Okeechobee water releases are having on businesses.
Along both coasts, several local businesses have experienced financial losses because of the pollution. Hobe Sound’s Reel Life Bait and Tackle is one of those businesses. Owner Lillian Graziano recently told the Florida Record that while her business isn't "right at ground zero,” the pollution “travels everywhere” and has affected it along with several other water-sport businesses. She added that although the pollution will eventually clear out, it’s scaring away visitors and locals at the worst possible time.
Many people are concerned about whether or not the fish are safe to eat or if the water is safe to touch, she said.
Looking ahead, Graziano said she hopes a solution is found and implemented soon to stop the flow of Lake Okeechobee’s polluted water from reaching the coasts.
“If they don’t really fix the problem, then it’s never going to change,” she told the Record.
Graziano and many others have used social media to voice their desire and the need for change.