Biologist Paul Gray has been working on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee for more than 20 years. The last 12 have been with Audubon, which has had someone committed full time to Lake Okeechobee since 1936. Gray is the just the sixth person to fill that position.
Audubon: What is your role with Audubon?
Gray: Our first employees on Lake Okeechobee were actually wardens. They carried a badge and gun and were enforcing hunting and fishing regulations, since at that time the state really didn’t have anybody enforcing laws. Nowadays we obviously have a state wildlife agency, so I’m a science coordinator working mostly on Lake Okeechobee water-level and water-quality issues.
Q: Can you give us a picture of Lake Okeechobee and its part in Everglades restoration?
A: If you look at a weather map you will see this big round lake right in the center of the southern part of the peninsula. That’s Lake Okeechobee. It’s the second largest freshwater lake wholly within the United States. It’s about 30 mile across and 36 miles tall. It’s also very shallow.
Lake Okeechobee is the main water management feature in south Florida. Okeechobee used to flow south into the Everglades. Now we’ve diverted the water to the east coast and the west coast estuaries for drainage purposes. That’s part of what the Everglades restoration project is about, trying to redirect the water back to the Everglades, where it can be beneficial, and away from the estuaries, where it tends to be harmful.
Okeechobee is right at the line where you change from a temperate into a tropical ecosystem. Basically the summer is very wet, and we get about 70 percent of our rain. [The area] is very flat, so by the end of summer the rains fill up all of south Florida. There is water standing everywhere. Just about anywhere you go, you are up to your ankles at least. Then during the winter that water flows slowly down the Kissimmee Valley into Lake Okeechobee. Historically, it meandered through the Everglades and out into Florida Bay, but we’ve created these huge drainage projects so in the summer the water runs very quickly into Lake Okeechobee, which gets way too deep for its own health.
Years ago we set out to drain the state, and it worked. But now we are in an extremely severe water shortage. And it’s not because we don’t get enough water, it’s because we throw it away. If you remember the hurricane years of 2004 and 2005, we essentially dumped enough water to meet all of our water needs around Lake Okeechobee for a decade. Here we are in 2007 and the farms and cities are being severely rationed.
What we are trying to do with Everglades restoration is rebuild the system where we can keep this water during wet periods. Then when the dry periods come, there will be enough left over so that not only do the farms and cities get their water but the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee get their appropriate share. That’s one of the big goals of what we are trying to do down here.
Q: What are some of the other issues?
A: Unfortunately, not only have we drained the state, but Lake Okeechobee is severely polluted. The main pollutant is phosphorous, which is just a nutrient. It’s a fertilizer that you put on crops, but south Florida ecosystems generally have very little amounts of phosphorous and when we fertilize them, things that don’t tend to grow here, like cattails, overrun the system and turn it into a big monoculture.
In Lake Okeechobee, phosphorous also causes algae blooms, and it has created a big mud center at the bottom of the lake, which covers about 300 square miles. There is so much phosphorous and nutrient pollution in that mud center that we believe even if we can get clean water running into Lake Okeechobee it will be a couple of decades before the phosphorous levels in the lake are back down to what we think are healthy levels.
We’ve literally created a problem that will last at least a generation. We spent a hundred years screwing up south Florida, and it is going to take a couple decades at least to rebuild the system.
Q: Are there places in the lake where the ecosystem is taking care of itself?
A: Okeechobee has about 150 square miles of marshes, mostly on its western side. There are all these wonderful tropical birds that people like to come see. There are snail kites and limpkins, which are halfway between a rail and a kite—they are in that family and eat almost exclusively apple snails. And of all the wading birds. We have snowy egrets, tricolor herons, little blue herons, least bitterns, great egrets, great blue herons, anhinga, and purple gallinule.
If you go way back into the marsh, places like Moonshine Bay, they can be pretty far from the polluted mud center. It can be just like native Everglades habitat.
Q: There was a recent vote by the South Florida Water Management District to prevent pumping water from agricultural land into Lake Okeechobee. Can you explain that situation?
A: Part of that overall state drainage plan was to drain the northern part of the Everglades. The area right south of Lake Okeechobee was called the Everglades Agricultural Area. It is about 700,000 acres. It’s a little bit bigger than Lake Okeechobee. Now it is all farmland. That’s where most of the sugar cane is grown in south Florida.
When they first designed the system, they built it so they could pump water out of the agricultural area into Lake Okeechobee to try to refill it every summer, but the problem is that the water coming out of the sugarcane fields has really high level of phosphorous and really low level of oxygen. It’s fairly polluted water, so there have been lawsuits over it ever since.
In 1970 the judge said you cannot refill the lake anymore. That water is just too dirty. It’s polluting Lake Okeechobee. But they reserved the right when it is real rainy to turn on the pumps and help relieve flooding in the agricultural area. It’s just for flood protection, but traditionally every time we’ve had a drought the secretary of environmental protection has declared an emergency, which means you don’t have to follow the rules anymore, and they pump polluted water back into Lake Okeechobee.
Well this year, while the water was so low, they went in and spent about $11 million to remove gunk off the exposed bottom. They probably removed only about 1 percent of the amount in the whole lake, but at least in those areas where they removed it, it may mean cleaner water. So it’s a good project.
But then to turn around and pump the same junk right back into the lake that you just spent $11 million removing is just dumb. For the first time ever, the water management district told farmers we’re not going to back-pump. We’re not going to re-pollute the lake. We’re going to have to tough it out and get through this drought. We’ll do everything we can to get you some reasonable amount of water, but we’re not going to do it at the expense of Lake Okeechobee.
Some people tried to portray this as anti-agriculture. But if you pump north back into the lake, the water isn’t going south through the Everglades. That means the Everglades Park and the cities and farms down south may not get what they need. It’s one of those things were it’s a complicated management system and we really think the governing board really made the right decision to let the water go south.
Right now we have about $2 billion in projects lined up to fix Lake Okeechobee. At the same time as you’re spending all that money should you also be intentionally pumping polluted water back in? I think we’re finally reaching the point where we’re getting a more holistic view of what we’re doing to south Florida.
Governor Chiles—he was governor about 10 years ago—said, “We’ve been saving Okeechobee and killing it all at the same time.” And that’s kind of the way we’ve been doing it. I hope we’re turning a corner to saving it more than we’re killing it.
Q: What is your sense of the 2000 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project?
A: It’s a great plan. It’s really complicated. If you read back on the history of draining Florida, they tried like the dickens for 50 years to get the Everglades drained, but they never had enough money. They persevered and finally got it done. We’re going to have to do the same thing. We’re going to have to spend a long time and persevere and finally get it rehydrated the right way.
A lot of people are impatient, but the project is designed and ready to go. All we need is funding from Congress to match what Florida has already spent. The funding bill [the Water Resources Development Act] was supposed to be passed in 2000, and 2002, and 2004, and 2006. And it hasn’t been passed. It has been deadlocked in Congress. We need that money to get these projects going.
The Senate is set to pass the bill after all these years, but now the Bush administration has threatened to veto the bill. President Bush thinks it’s too expensive, which is kind of nutty, because the longer you postpone the more expensive it gets. Land prices have gone up very quickly. The cost of fuel, the cost of concrete, everything we need is getting more expensive. The sooner we do this the cheaper it is going to be.
We’re not only restoring the Everglades, we’re rebuilding the whole water management infrastructure for all the people in south Florida. So this isn’t just about birds, it’s about whether south Florida is going to work in the future.
Q: The Bush administration pushed UNESCO to remove the Everglades National Park from the list of endangered World Heritage Sites. What is your take on that?
A: That was premature to say the least. They haven’t funded a single project, and they said let’s take it off the list because we have done such a great job. Well, you haven’t done anything yet; you’ve talked about it.
They asked the scientists in the Everglades National Park to come up with a series of benchmarks for when the Everglades would be restored. We haven’t achieved any of those benchmarks. The science was ignored by the administration in getting the delisting.
We were really disappointed in that maneuver. Senator [Bill] Nelson from Florida is holding an inquiry. He is pretty outraged too because when you have this project that is going to take 20 to 30 years, you haven’t even funded it, and you’re six years behind schedule, to declare victory is not good.
We’ve lost about half the wetlands in the Everglades but about 90 percent of the birds, and the reason for that is we’ve screwed up the ecosystem. It is important that Florida is functioning properly as a migratory stopover, because we’re really the neck of a funnel for a huge area. If you have a wren nesting in your backyard in eastern North America, Florida matters to you. The Everglades is really a key place for two continents’ worth of birds moving back and forth. That’s obvious to us at Audubon, but other folks may not know it.
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