By Carl Hiassen
The mission was to display concern over the billions of gallons of cruddy water being dumped from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River, a criminal act of pollution that’s poisoning the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon.
Hundreds of demonstrators, many worried about their jobs, showed up at the dam. Rick Scott didn’t stop to talk to them.
He spoke for a short time to the media, saying he wants to spend $40 million on a reservoir to filter some of the runoff before it can reach the estuary.
He blamed the Army Corps of Engineers for moving too slowly to upgrade the old Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. He also blamed Congress for failing to release the money committed for Everglades restoration projects.
The governor wasn’t so chatty on the subject of Big Sugar, which has donated a pile to his political action committee with the goal of getting him reelected.
A major reason all that lake slop is being pumped toward the residential areas of both coasts (the Caloosahatchee River carries it west) is that the cane growers don’t want it pumped in their direction.
Fearful that the dike will give way, the Corps drains Lake Okeechobee when water levels get high. Last week, the outflow was reduced from 3.1 billion gallons a day to about 1.8 billion gallons a day, still a massive deluge from what is basically a giant latrine for agricultural waste.
Since the most recent discharges from Lake O began in May, more than 1 million pounds of nitrogen and 260,000 pounds of phosphorus have been flushed into the St. Lucie River and on to the estuary.
Now we get to watch Scott, another Republican whiner about federal spending, bash the feds for not spending enough and not spending it fast enough. Somewhere in the folds of the governor’s brain has stirred a fuzzy awareness that clean healthy water is really important to Floridians, and also essential to the economy.
Ask the commercial fishermen in Stuart, the marina operators, the boat builders, the hotel owners and the restaurateurs. Ask the real-estate agents who are trying to sell waterfront lots on smelly, discolored water.
Already in crash mode is the Indian River Lagoon, which runs north from Jupiter Inlet to beyond the Kennedy Space Center. Algae blooms have decimated vast acres of sea grass, and experts suspect the outbreak was triggered by accumulated fertilizer runoff and leakage from septic tanks in Brevard and Indian River counties.
Sea grasses are the nursery for juvenile game fish and shrimp, without which the food chain collapses. At least 280 manatees have died in Brevard during the last year, along with an unusually high number of pelicans and bottlenose dolphins.
Scientists haven’t pinpointed the cause, but there’s no disagreement that the last thing the lagoon needs is a nonstop gusher of foul substances from Lake Okeechobee.
Scott isn’t wrong when he says the federal government is way behind on Everglades funding. Restoration was supposed to be a 50/50 deal with Uncle Sam, but for many years Florida has been spending more than its share.
The main obstacle is Congress — particularly Scott’s own party.
After years of diddling, the Senate finally approved money for a new water bill last spring. Among the 13 senators voting against it was Marco Rubio, who has evidently forgotten which state he was elected to represent.
Soon the House will take up the water legislation, and watch what happens when Rubio’s tea party soulmates get their hands on it.
The fastest way to stop destroying the St. Lucie Estuary is to pump the toxic water from Lake Okeechobee elsewhere, south through waterways along the cane fields and other farmlands.
That’s unlikely to happen, because Big Sugar gives too much money to the campaigns of key Republicans and Democrats.
Sugar companies can afford to be generous because they’ve been slurping at the public trough for decades, their profits multiplied by federal price supports. During the 2012 election cycle, the industry spent $3.6 million on campaign donations, even more than Big Tobacco.
In fact, the sugar growers are so rich they could afford a special tax to expedite repairing the 143-mile dike around Lake Okeechobee. Make it strong enough to hold all that water during rainy season, protecting not only their precious crops but also the thousands of jobs that depend on clean rivers and bays.
That, of course, won’t happen either.
The governor’s low-voltage response to the crisis is to blame the feds and spend a few minutes up on a dam. No sense of urgency, no sign of the outrage that families and workers on both coasts are feeling.
In the short time it took you to read this column, about 5 million gallons of gunky water was flushed out of Lake Okeechobee, toward somebody’s shore and somebody’s home.
Somebody who votes.