There are serious economic benefits to ecosystem restoration and clean, healthy environments, particularly our estuaries. The Mather Report indicates that every dollar invested in ecosystem restoration generates at least $4 in economic benefits. Besides protecting our quality of life, it's a good investment for jobs and tax base; and it's an important driver of ecotourism in the future.
Pete Quasias
Environmental Advocate
Audubon of Southwest Florida
Pete Quasias


Pete Quasias 2

Pete Quasias
Environmental Advocate, Audubon of Southwest Florida

In his long-time work for Audubon of Southwest Florida and other environmental groups, Pete Quasius sees progress in the battleground of water issues but no improvement yet in Caloosahatchee River conditions. He praises governmental land purchases and easements, new federal funding for construction projects, new federal agency involvement, and encouraging infrastructure developments. He calls for continuing tests on the controversial underground water storage (ASR) technology to determine if it can provide cost effective multi-year storage of water for drought periods. And he calls for continued momentum, particularly when it comes to the development of new technologies to rid local waters of excess pollution.

He expresses satisfaction regarding the River of Grass land purchase and options to buy more land by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, even though the 27,000 acres isn't nearly enough land for water clean-up or a flowway south. It is a good first step despite the fact that the drop in the value of local real estate is reducing tax revenue available for building projects, repairing and improving infrastructure and buying additional needed acreage. He's also hopeful about the federal partners stepping up to continue funding core projects and their promised 50 percent of CERP projects. After more than a decade of unfulfilled commitments for federal dollars, some $400 million worth of projects now are actually under construction, creating jobs and economic stimulus. Hopefully soon, more clean water will start flowing to the south rather than being dumped -- untreated and causing damage -- to tide via the Caloosahatchee River.

Also on the federal level, he sees the U.S. Department of Agriculture becoming a major new player in ecosystem restoration efforts with funding for "water farming" projects and wetlands protection. These efforts pay local farmers for better nutrient management, slowing runoff and storing water on their lands, thereby providing a less expensive alternative to building deep water reservoirs and treatment areas. These programs also keep land in private ownership, on the local tax rolls and in production. Pete praises the innovative thinking behind this initiative and hopes to see more creative solutions to water management and pollution source controls. He also is pleased to see new federal dollars flowing into the National Wildlife Refuge program.

Other encouraging news he cites is progress in infrastructure development under way in Southwest Florida. The construction of the C-43 reservoir on 10,000 acres just upstream in Hendry County has the potential to provide a much-needed source of fresh water for the Caloosahatchee estuary rather than relying on water releases from Lake Okeechobee. The land has been purchased; the engineering and testing has been completed; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has signed off; and the project now only awaits approval and funding by Congress. Plans also are progressing for a facility near the Ortona locks, partially funded by Lee County, to test nitrogen removal techniques.

"We're seeing the possibility of relief for the dry season fresh water shortages for the estuary within the next decade," says Pete. "That's much sooner than the estimate of generations made just a few years ago."

The only bad news he sees in this picture is the $1/2 billion cost that requires appropriation by Congress in tough economic times. But he's pleased that the state already has invested much of its share of the cost -- with the land purchase, clearing, engineering and testing -- and the reservoir construction is poised to break ground as soon as the federal dollars arrive. "We still need a plan and agreement to provide some water to the estuary during dry seasons until the reservoir, maybe ASR wells, and basin water farming projects are constructed to protect our multibillion dollar a year tourist and fishing industries," he adds.

At the same time, there is pressure to accelerate repairs on the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee so that the Lake can hold higher levels of water without the risk of failure. More water capacity protects the Caloosahatchee estuary from some of the damage from high water flows by allowing releases to be made over a longer period of time. "However, we still need a way to move more water south, where clean water is needed, rather than dumping fresh water to tide," says Pete. "Higher lake levels also provide more water for the ecosystem and other users during the dry season. Again, all that is needed is more money."

In addition, construction has started on the bridging of Tamiami Trail, US 41, so water can once again sheet flow south to Everglades Park and Florida Bay; and significant progress is being made on the restoration of Picayune Strand State Forest in Collier County to restore more than 50,000 acres of wildlife habitat and to resume healthy sheet flow to the Ten Thousand Islands.

Plus, significant progress is under way in building and refining the stormwater treatment areas used to clean up pollutants. Stormwater Treatment Areas are constructed wetlands that remove and store nutrients through plant growth. Their primary purpose is to remove phosphorus from urban and agricultural runoff flowing into the Everglades; but they -- particularly STA5 near Clewiston -- also have become some of the best duck hunting and bird watching places in the country and help fuel an ecotourism industry.

"The biggest problem overall for the coastal waters is that we still don't have cost effective technology to remove the heavy nitrogen loads that are being added to our waters," says Pete. "Stormwater treatment areas do a good job of removing phosphorous but not enough nitrogen, the latter of which contributes to damaging algae blooms, particularly in coastal waters. Agricultural runoff, inadequate sewage treatment, and failed and inappropriately placed septic systems all contribute to the nitrogen problem."

And, according to Pete, we've not made that much progress in cleaning up water coming down the Kissimmee River and into the Lake and then to the estuary. "The Kissimmee restoration is marvelous wildlife habitat and slows the flow of storm water, but we're still dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of sewage solids on Florida fields that cause polluted runoff into the lakes, streams and rivers. Pollution loads continue to increase, not decrease, in Lake Okeechobee; and we need a funded program to reverse the trend and to clean up the huge quantity of muck at the bottom of the Lake that pollutes waters coming down the Caloosahatchee after every storm or lake drawdown."

He praises Lee County as a leader in water conservation, in passing fertilizer ordinances and as one of the best counties in the state for reusing water that has passed through sewage treatment plants by putting that water back onto landscape and golf courses rather than dumping it into the river. "However, we need much better management of the hundreds of thousands of septic systems in Lee County, many old and probably failing," he continues. "Many of the those drain fields are at risk as coastal water tables rise from sea level and high tides reach higher levels. Cleaning up our own backyards with improved storm water management, sewage treatment and fertilizer usage goes a long way in water quality improvement."

Pete sees local governments finally moving in that direction, but he contends we still need appropriate science-based numeric nutrient standards for area waters and then the plans and funding to meet those standards.

The constant challenge today is continued public support and funding, particularly in this tight economy. "We're making progress and always looking for ways to get a better bang for our tax buck," concludes Pete. "Everyone in the community needs to help be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It will take some time, rules and regulations to make polluters really clean up the mess they make and lots of taxpayer money to fix problems of legacy pollution and inadequate infrastructure we helped create, but we are moving in the right direction. We also are recognizing that investing tax dollars in ecosystem restoration and water clean-up pays large dividends for our economy and our quality of life."

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Stories From Your Neighbors

One way to truly understand the impact that freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee are having on Lee County is to hear your neighbors’ experiences. Those who live on or near the Caloosahatchee River are really seeing the effects first-hand. Here are their stories.

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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

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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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