Reconnecting the River of Grass

Mike Atwood, Roshan Nebhrajani, Teo Escobar, and Jorge Guillen contributed to this story. 

Just two hours north, all along the Treasure Coast, blue-green algae has transformed the once crystal clear water into a toxic, unswimmable polluted mess. And it’s not just in the water. Scientists say that the toxic cyanobacteria travels through the air, too.

While we were filming and reporting this story, we were nauseated by the smell of the rotting algae and dead fish in the waterways. We got headaches after just a few minutes of exposure — we couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to live around that every day.

Video by: Mike Atwood/The New Tropic

It’s a problem that can’t be put on any one person or industry, because it stems from decades of poor water management, says Paul Gray, the Okeechobee Science Coordinator at the Florida Audubon.

Now, after years of systematic neglect, it’s time to put political pressure on politicians to start fixing it, he stressed. While the blooms have begun dissipating now, experts are adamant that they’ll be back again and again if something doesn’t change.

Historically, everything north of Lake Okeechobee, from the Kissimmee River south used to flow to the Everglades, through Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding area. When we decided we wanted to drain the state south of the lake, we had to find a new place to send that water.

Engineers decided to divert it to the east and west, to the coastlines, because it was easier — to connect to the coasts, they simply had to build short canals connecting the lake to already existing rivers (the Caloosahatchee River to the west and to St. Lucie River to the east). To divert the water to the south instead, they would have to somehow traverse 100 miles to get the water to the Everglades.

When we flush that nutrient-rich water from Lake O to the coastline via those rivers, instead of through marshland that would naturally clean it, that creates the perfect climate for algae blooms.

Meanwhile, the Everglades to the south is drying out because it’s getting a lot less water than it used to.

So why don’t we let water flow to the Everglades rather than east and west? Well the entire Everglades Agricultural Area stands in the way.

“This is a river and we put this huge human enterprise right in the middle of our river, so now we’re trying to reconnect Okeechobee to the rest of the river and we have everybody in the way,” Gray said.

“A lot of people want to blame the farmers for everything, but if you flush your toilet in Palm Beach or even in Miami, some of that is up here,” Gray said. “It’s not just the farmers it’s all of us. Humans have a footprint and all of us need to be careful about how we deal with our waste and our nutrient streams.”