Currently more than eight million South Florida residents, almost one-third of the state’s population, directly rely on the Everglades system for freshwater supply. Florida’s $55 billion agriculture sector also relies heavily on this system to supply water for crop irrigation. Urbanization of much of the region mandates the need for flood control during Florida’s wet season and necessary measures to assure an adequate water supply during the dry season. As of now, when stormwater runoff causes water in the Lake Okeechobee to rise to high levels, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discharges large volumes of water west into the Caloosahatchee River and east into the St. Lucie River. For years, many Florida beaches and waterways have been declared as impaired and have faced contamination issues that have impacted the state’s economy, environment, and health of Florida’s residents.
Contaminated water has already had a drastic impact on Florida’s natural habitat. Research has shown that seagrass populations have precipitously declined in recent years in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River estuaries and lagoons, as well as in the Biscayne and Florida bays. Between 2009 and 2011, about 45 percent of the North Indian River Lagoon total seagrass acreage was lost. Furthermore, studies of the St. Lucie River indicate an 83 percent decrease in the total population density of benthic organisms over the last 30 years, and local extinction of some benthic organisms is possible. Florida Bay suffered a devastating loss of seagrass in 2015, affecting more than 50,000 acres of the bay. These losses in coastal habitat have had direct impacts on our recreational fishing industry, as professional guides regularly report declining catch, increased fuel use to find bait or fish, and lost business.
Just as ecosystem health is impacted by changes in the Everglades water flow, human health is also affected, particularly by the algal blooms. In the first half of 2016 alone, there were 44 freshwater blooms in the Everglades water system, with 21 of these blooms containing toxic blue-green algae. Humans are exposed to toxins that originate from the algae via ingestion of fish and shellfish that are contaminated, accidental ingestion during recreation, and inhalation of aerosolized toxins. Dermal (skin) exposure can also occur during swimming and wading. Exposure to such toxins can lead to rashes, liver and digestive issues, upper and lower respiratory symptoms, eye irritation, bronchoconstriction, and dry cough.
With water pollution having such a significant impact on our state’s waterways, coastlines, beaches, and the health of Florida’s residents, there is certainly going to be a significant impact on the state’s economy. Studies have found that polluted bodies of water can have a significant impact on property values throughout the state. For example, houses that are in close proximity to clean water sources can experience an increase in home value of up to 25 percent, compared to their counterparts. Polluted beaches and lakes can also have a significant impact on tourism throughout the state. In July of 2016, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency due to contaminated bodies of water along Florida’s coastline. The declaration made headlines across the United States and left many of Florida’s tourism hubs desolate. It is estimated that tourism destinations in Florida could lose out on millions in potential revenue if Florida’s beaches and waterways are not cleaned up.
The time is now. No one argues that solutions to the issue may be costly and quite frankly complicated, but the fact of the matter is, each day Florida waits to solve the problem, the solution becomes more expensive. While the price tag to address the issues raised in this report may be a shock to the system, the cost of inaction could be far more devastating to the state of Florida and its hardworking taxpayers.