The Most Pressing Environmental Issue in Florida?

Certainly everyone reading this could name a number of environmental concerns that exist throughout our state. But in my opinion, there’s one issue that rises above most of the others to stand as the biggest environmental issue facing Florida.

That issue is maintaining the health of the Everglades — and in turn, the health of the Biscayne aquifer.

The Everglades may be one of Florida’s most famous features, but make a contribution to our life that goes far beyond tourism.

They serve a vital role as a natural “filter” for the water that they usher into the massive Biscayne aquifer. That aquifer is like a sprawling underground sponge beneath Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties, retaining enough moisture to serve as the major water source for most people in South Florida.

At the moment, however, the Everglades actually face a combination of threats in water diversion and water pollution.

In 1928, the storm surge from a hurricane caused the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee to overflow, flooding hundreds of square miles and killing thousands of residents.

In the wake of that tragedy, a series of dams and lakes were built to prevent this from happening again. But now, when lake water reaches extreme levels, it discharges into rivers—often carrying phosphates, fertilizers, plus other chemicals and nitrogen-based compounds along with it.

While this system effectively helps guard against catastrophic flooding, it’s allowing polluted water to spread while depriving the Everglades of some portion of the water that is needed to adequately recharge the aquifer.

Last spring, however, Gov. Scott signed Sen. Joe Negron’s Senate Bill 10, which will enable the construction of a 78-billion-gallon reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that will serve as a buffer between the lake and the Everglades. That project should eventually eliminate discharges of toxic water into rivers, and allow a controlled, gradual discharge of treated water into the Everglades.

In the meantime, it’s especially critical to protect the water that does enter the region. Large parts of the Everglades have been drained over the years for development, and much of the adjacent real estate is used for agricultural purposes.

Phosphorous from farm fertilizers can cause cattail and algae blooms that can choke the marshes of the Everglades and diminish water quality.

Fortunately, growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have been taking regular measures for quite some time to reduce the amount of pollutants in water flowing off of farms. While skeptics claim that say that region’s overall positive averages may conceal the shortcomings of some individual polluters, the improvements have been steady and significant.

The state has also built marshes across thousands of acres that help capture some of the remaining phosphorous in the water making its way into the Everglades

While this is a bigger task than any of us can tackle as individuals, it’s important to understand the problems, and to support reasonable efforts that maintain south Florida’s ecosystems.

With effort and attention, the Everglades can still be serving performing their vital function in south Florida’s water supply generations from now.