With Florida projected to become the third most-populous state, the need for future water supplies has been receiving a lot of media attention lately. The discussions have ranged from lawsuits filed against neighboring states for limiting the flow of water down the Apalachicola River, to finding critical funding to address the water quantity and quality needs for America’s Everglades. Additionally, another hot water topic making the news is developing long-term solutions to halt the more than 4 billion gallons of polluted water flushed daily from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and estuaries.
Although our state’s leaders are stepping up and have brought these issues to the forefront, we must continue to make water policy a top priority in Florida and not wait for another environmental catastrophe before we take action.
This past session, funding for important environmental initiatives improved, and those of us in the environmental community remain optimistic that these commitments to the environment will continue. However, Florida has been lacking in its comprehensive water policy for years.
I do not think it has been out of malice or negligence, but simply because solving Florida’s water problem is complex and has not been an exciting front-page issue that gets everyone’s attention. Now that is changing. With the Lake Okeechobee crisis at the forefront, people are starting to fear that clean drinking water, swimming in our springs and at our beaches, or that commercial and recreational fisheries may be threatened. Those are real consequences of not taking all the necessary steps to protect our water supply and finding long-term solutions to the harmful discharges plaguing our state’s river systems and threatening our economy.
There isn’t a silver bullet to the water quantity and quality problems facing the state. It took decades to get to where we are now, and it will take many years to recover. We must be aggressive in our actions and provide the necessary resources to truly make a difference to ensure we don’t have continued water crises in Florida.
We can accomplish this goal by focusing on solutions both short-term and long-term that will benefit the people and wildlife of Florida. Solutions such as wetland restoration on agricultural lands by using the USDA’s federal Wetland Reserve Program, dispersed water management/storage, completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation, water conservation and water farming will go a long way toward addressing the crisis in South Florida. Similar programs, in addition to smart growth and regional water supply planning, will significantly improve the water crisis in Central and North Florida.
Some of the solutions are tried and true, others are innovative and new, like the dispersed water management program that recognizes that water can be stored on private or public land and the land, leased from private landowners, can assist in water farming and storage.
The state’s water management districts must have the funding and the willingness to move forward with creative solutions, while we are in a period of above-average rainfall. It takes time to implement these solutions, so taking appropriate actions now will protect Florida’s water supply, our economy and our environment.
Let’s stay out of crisis mode for water policy and our future.
Shelly Lakly, Ph. D, is the Florida state director of The Nature Conservancy.