As soon as we argue over more or less water, we've lost the battle. We've broken into tribes. We need to think of ourselves as citizens of an entire water shed. Thoughtful conversation about the challenges we're facing is critical. We need to listen to one another.
Win Everham
Associate Professor
Ecological & Social Science
Win Everham


Win Everham 2

Win Everham
Associate Professor, Ecological & Social Science
College of Arts & Science, Florida Gulf Coast University

As an ecology educator, Win Everham understands only too well what's happening with our area's natural resources. He teaches his students every day about the intricacies of ecosystems, including estuaries. And he explains the impact of man-made interventions.

In the case of Lee County's situation, he explains that man has altered the natural flow of rivers over the last 100 years. This includes straightening the natural bend of the rivers by digging channels in the Kissimmee River that flows into Lake Okeechobee as well as the Caloosahatchee River. As rapid growth reduced the amount of land available to absorb rainfall, the channels were meant to drain water more rapidly and to prevent flooding.

Water that flows more rapidly carries more run-off sediment with it, since the rate of flow does not permit natural settling. And, rather than the land absorbing the water, more is drained into Lake Okeechobee with higher concentrations of sediment. This creates the need for freshwater releases, which currently are being channeled to the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie Canal.

"Anytime you change the landscape, you disrupt natural systems," says Win. "There are daily cycles of tides and annual cycles of pulsing water, which we've disrupted and which stresses the ecosystem."

You see estuaries need just the right mix of fresh and salt water to create the proper salinity levels for marine life. When large amounts of water are released at once from Lake Okeechobee, it pushes out all the brackish water in the estuary and leaves too much fresh water. And, when the water is withheld from the Lake for long periods of time, too much salt water comes into the estuary. This stresses the organisms that live there and eventually kills them.

"What's happening with our estuaries is similar to fertilizing your lawn," explains Win. "If you don't fertilize it enough, the grass won't grow; and if you give it too much, the grass dies. You need just the right amount; not too little and too much."

One result of the imbalance is algae blooms in which the population of organisms naturally present in the water explodes. Nature's checks and balances are thrown off, and the organism dominates the water ways. One such species -- blue green algae -- releases toxins that can be absorbed into the skin. Once it dies and settles to the bottom, bacteria break it apart. They use oxygen to do so. The decomposition of huge algae blooms drops oxygen levels low enough to suffocate marine life, resulting in massive fish kills.

Contrary to popular belief, the scientific answers to solve this issue and the area's other water problems are based on a dynamic process of discovery. The facts are not set in stone. New information is being uncovered every day that changes the course of action. So, Win encourages citizens to be informed, to be involved and to express their opinions. It's the only way he sees to focus enough energy and resources to make an impact.

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To tell us your tale, email us at mywaterstory@leegov.com. And thanks for taking time to help us better understand the scope of what’s happening to us all.

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Related Links

South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force:
http://www.sfrestore.org

South Florida Water Management District:
http://www.sfwmd.gov

More Links

Glossary

Phosphorus [P]:
An element or nutrient required for energy production in living organisms; distributed into the environment mostly as phosphates by agricultural runoff and life cycles; frequently the limiting factor for growth of microbes and plants.

Blue-Green Algae:
A type of algae natural to our area that blooms in the climatic and nutrient conditions it finds favorable.

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