Where do we grow from here? Declining water quality in SWFL

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FORT MYERS, Fla.- As Lee County continues to grow, we’re seeing record tourism numbers, but experts say the entire industry could be washed away.

Red tide is causing dead fish to wash up on some of Southwest Florida’s most popular beaches. Former Lee County commissioner and environmentalist Ray Judah says the area is on the brink of a crisis.

“We have a false sense of security,” said Judah. “We’ll be seeing a phenomenal increase in health related issues just because of the toxins that are getting in our waterways that are getting in contact with people, residents or visitors. Speaking of visitors, we’ll probably see fewer and fewer of them.”

Sobering statements for the tourism industry in Southwest Florida.

“Why come to an area where you have deteriorating water quality and public health concerns, when you can actually go to other areas of the world that are in fact, taking care of their water?” said Judah.

So what exactly is destroying our beaches and waterways? Experts say agriculture runoff, especially from sugar crops to the northeast, is pouring into Lake Okeechobee. From there, it’s pumped back out to the Caloosahatchee River and travels through the estuaries, ultimately making its way to the beaches.

“The excessive amount of nutrients in fertilizers actually act as a catalyst for blue green algae in freshwater such as the Caloosahatchee, which actually is toxic to fish and wildlife and humans, and also it leads to the increased frequency of red tide off our coast line,” said Judah.

Pictures taken in Alva show green algae covering a local river.

“With the deterioration of water quality, the water sports, the canoeing, the kayaking, the boating all become greatly diminished,” said Judah.

John Scott with the Sierra Club Calusa Group says the fate of our water and economy lies with politicians. Meanwhile, the tourism industry and those planning a trip to our beaches are keeping a watchful eye on the problem.

“The tourists actually seem to care more because they come down here, and they want to see these pristine beaches that they see pictures of, and then they get down here and some of the water is kind of brownish or whatever and they’re like, ‘wait a second, this is not what the brochure looked like,'” said Scott.

Environmentalists agree Lee County fertilizer ordinances are some of the strictest in the state, but they say they hope Glades and Hendry Counties can crack down on the agriculture runoff.

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