Explained: What is the water crisis Southwest Florida is battling?

Reporter: Stephanie Byrne
Published: Updated:

Water is Florida’s most precious resource. It not only surrounds our state, but it also connects communities within Florida. Florida’s unique landscape is made up of wetlands, beaches, swamps, and forests; all of which play a crucial role in the well-being and character of our state. We depend on water for the health of our ecosystems, tourism, economy, and consumption.

Florida’s water is now facing its own crisis between quality and quantity. WINK News is devoted to learning about these issues, while explaining what they mean to you and your family. Just as we’re concerned about the problems, we care about potential solutions. It’s all of our water and it will take all hands on deck to get to the bottom of Southwest Florida’s water quality crisis.

To understand our water issues, we have to go back to the beginning. According to the South Florida Water Management District, as recently as the early 1900’s, South Florida’s inland was swampland.

SFWMD says toward the end of the 19th century, draining led to the connection of waterways, like the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee. Following the 1928 hurricane which claimed thousands of lives, the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1930 allows the development of the Herbert Hoover Dike. In the 1960’s, the Kissimmee River is straightened out as part of a flood control measure in the state.

These changes reduced water flow to the Florida Everglades, but restoration efforts are underway today.

How does all of this connect to our water quality and quantity concerns? To maintain water levels in Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from the lake when necessary. The water flows east and/or west, to St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

SFWMD also controls flooding and protects our water supply through the use of levees, canals, and pump stations.

LINK: EPA Nutrient Pollution Sources and Solutions

In regards to water releases from Lake Okeechobee, the concern is harmful nutrients that could end up in our estuaries. These nutrients can stem from fertilizer, septic tanks, stormwater, and fossil fuels. These nutrients, combined with sunlight and slow-moving water, can lead to harmful blue-green algal blooms. Harmful algal blooms like toxic blue-green algae can kill pets and be harmful to humans, resulting in rashes, stomach or liver illness, respiratory issues, and even neurological effects.

LINK: Mote Marine Lab red tide research

Similar to blue-green algae, red tide occurs naturally as a microscopic organism; However, according to Mote Marine Lab, red tide happens when the cells multiply quickly and are paired with things like salinity and temperature. Mote says there is not a direct link between Karenia Brevis, the red tide alga, and nutrient loading, but nutrients can contribute to the growth of red tide. The brevetoxins in red tide are deadly to marine life. When combined with wind and currents, the aerosols from red tide can cause respiratory irritation in people.

Beyond harmful algal blooms, Floridians have to face issues like fecal bacteria in waterways, having too much water as a result of flooding, and not enough water.

This just touches the surface of some of the challenges our water faces. To overcome these problems, people from all walks of life have come together to try to solve them. From agencies to universities and everyone in between, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort to experiment, form task forces, and educate in the light of this crisis.

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