Lost Summer 10 years on: Are Lake Okeechobee, Indian River Lagoon, estuary woes too big?

This column was amended after online publication as it relates to Lake Okeechobee discharges in 2013.

As we continue through the 10th anniversary of the Lost Summer of 2013, I’m going to make a pessimistic prediction:

Like Ernie Lyons, Nathaniel Reed, Maggy Hurchalla ― some the past century’s greatest advocates for the Indian River Lagoon and the estuaries that feed it ― I doubt many of us my age will be around to see the day when folks never think twice about swimming in those waterways.

I’ll never see the lagoon, St. Lucie or St. Sebastian rivers the way Lyons did when he began working for the Stuart News.

“THERE were pileated woodpeckers pounding away on dead pines, egrets and herons, occasionally flocks of wild turkeys thundering over,” Lyons, the newspaper’s editor from 1945 to 1975, wrote of the St. Lucie River. “But the most wonderful thing was the water itself, pure, sweet, cool fresh water. For miles down from the headwaters you could lean over and drink your fill. Water the way God made it. No Chlorine. No chemical additives. No salt.”

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Lyons warned of problems if the South Florida Water Management District wasn’t careful with “an 'experimental release' of around 1,000 cubic feet per second of fresh Lake Okeechobee water from St. Lucie Canal” into the river.

“All South Florida rivers require a reasonable amount of fresh water. Too much is disastrous,” he wrote before releases became standard protocol.

In 2013 (and other years), massive amounts of freshwater, laden with toxic algae, was released from the lake, leading to bacteria and otherwise fouling the water behind the riverfront home of Stuart Realtor David Derrenbacker, who coined the "lost summer" moniker.

The St. Lucie and St. Sebastian, which start inland, flow into the lagoon ― nowadays passing drainage canals (some sprayed with herbicide to keep weeds under control), pastures and fertilized lawns with septic tanks.

By the time all that water ― even if it doesn’t contain algae released with the Lake Okeechobee discharges ― reaches the lagoon, it’s not exactly Evian or Perrier quality.

Negron shines at TCPalm forum

Lake Okeechobee water coated in cyanobacteria, or "blue-green algae", gathers around the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam, the structure that moves water from the lake into the C-44 Canal and the St. Lucie River on Friday, June 30, 2023, in Martin County.
Lake Okeechobee water coated in cyanobacteria, or "blue-green algae", gathers around the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam, the structure that moves water from the lake into the C-44 Canal and the St. Lucie River on Friday, June 30, 2023, in Martin County.

The lagoon has its own issues with canals, outflows and sewage plants along the Treasure Coast, though inlets in Sebastian, Fort Pierce and Stuart give it a healthy flushing from time to time.

But that doesn’t help everyone, as Derrenbacker saw in 2013.

“The ability for my (three small) kids to enjoy the local water has been taken from them,” Derrenbacker told TCPalm columnist Eve Samples. “We will never get this summer back.”

Samples was one of many important water advocates in 2013. She moderated packed forums TCPalm held in Stuart and Vero Beach, featuring Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Society and Treasure Coast legislators, including Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Samples reflects on past decade

Local residents fill the lobby of the Press Journal June 5, 2013, as Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers columnist Eve Samples (left) hosts a forum on the Indian River Lagoon with Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Society, Sens. Joe Negron and Thad Altman, and Rep. Debbie Mayfield.
Local residents fill the lobby of the Press Journal June 5, 2013, as Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers columnist Eve Samples (left) hosts a forum on the Indian River Lagoon with Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Society, Sens. Joe Negron and Thad Altman, and Rep. Debbie Mayfield.

In the June 5, 2013, forum, Negron, the Senate budget chief, shocked many of us when he pitched spending $100 million (up from $70 million) for Everglades restoration, a key factor in ending Lake Okeechobee discharges.

Negron's efforts in the Lost Summer of 2013 started a spending commitment from state government. It also started a wave of advocacy that stretched from growing local nonprofits to the halls of Congress.

Why am I so pessimistic? Samples, now executive director of Friends of the Everglades, expressed some of my views in a recent Facebook post:

“A decade later, we're still grappling with the same issues: a water-management system that favors Big Sugar over public health and the environment; excessive agricultural pollution in our waters; politicians unwilling to hold the biggest polluters accountable.”

Bush, Crist, Scott, DeSantis play key roles

As part of a special opinion section of the newspaper in August 2013, the TCPalm/Treasure Coast Newspapers opinion staff encouraged members of the community to show their support for the Indian River Lagoon by holding newspaper-designed rack cards. Here, columnists Michael Goforth, Anthony Westbury, Eve Samples, Ed Killer, Rich Campbell and Laurence Reisman hold cards in the Stuart newsroom.

The latter is part of what TCPalm uncovered in its 2022 award-winning report on basin management action plans, designed to keep our waterways clean.

Then there’s a state government that talks a good game, doles out lots of money, but often, in the end, doesn’t completely execute.

I’ve seen it during the administrations of four governors over almost 20 years:

  • Jeb Bush, who planned to fix things by funding projects, then getting the federal government to chip in.

  • Charlie Crist, who touted his $1.75 billion deal to save the Everglades by buying out U.S. Sugar. He declared it “as monumental" as the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Acquisition of the sugar land would have helped create a flow way to move naturally filtered Lake O water south into the Everglades, not east-west.

  • Rick Scott, who killed Crist’s deal and never seemed to care about the environment.

  • Ron DeSantis, who talks a great game and allocates lots of money, but lets polluters win. This year, he signed a budget TCPalm reported bans local governments from enacting fertilizer prohibitions and may roll back such existing ordinances.

Analyzing the dams that impede progress

Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, shows algae Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, during a presentation on sending Lake Okeechobee water south during a hearing of the Florida Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin at the Kane Center in Stuart.
Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, shows algae Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, during a presentation on sending Lake Okeechobee water south during a hearing of the Florida Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin at the Kane Center in Stuart.

In the meantime, Scott and DeSantis, especially, have encouraged significant development and population growth that stresses waterways and threatens communities in many other ways.

Meantime, reports begun in the 20th century that led to proposed reforms and projects years later don’t gain sufficient traction. Now, some new politicians question the older studies and argue new research has to be done. Thus, little is accomplished.

State politicians’ lack of focus hurts, too. They have a tough job navigating various needs in this state, from affordable housing to education. But when they get involved in culture wars ― fighting Disney, firing elected state attorneys or fiddling with AP curriculum ― they waste state resources they otherwise could use to resolve bigger issues.

Meantime, nonprofits — so many I’ve lost track — have proliferated to advocate for cleaner water. Even they can’t all unite on issues. They raise amazing amounts of money. What if it were spent more efficiently?

Lord only knows how climate plays into the Treasure Coast water mess. We know warm water likely has led to fish kills and other bad things in waterways this year, as reported by TCPalm’s Ed Killer and Katie Delk.

There's been good news, but ...

LAURENCE REISMAN
LAURENCE REISMAN

I’m pessimistic because locals have sounded the alert over or fought for better water for nearly a century, yet here we are with no end in sight.

Yes, there’s been some good news.

More people seem interested and engaged than ever; the Tamiami Trail is being rebuilt so water can flow better to the Everglades, and the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee has been fortified to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the water level higher and limit discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

I hate being pessimistic. But in today’s Florida, some problems are too big to solve in many of our lifetimes.

This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Contact him via email at larry.reisman@tcpalm.com, phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman.

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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Decades later, little progress on saving Indian River Lagoon, rivers