It was a showdown with Florida flair — a Martin County business with billionaire backing versus a 77-year-old environmentalist with a constitution as tough as Dade County Pine.
For eight days, the case of mining company Lake Point Restoration against storied Everglades protector Maggy Hurchalla played out in front of a jury.
Was their conflict that of a company wronged by a conservationist’s influence over public officials, or a well-heeled entrepreneur with a grudge and the money to satisfy it in a prolonged legal rumble?
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has responded to concerns that state-sanctioned Burmese python hunts are cruel and may be causing undue suffering on the invasive species.
In a letter this month to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, FWC defends the programs that encourage contractors and members of the public to remove the damaging snakes from the Everglades ecosystem.
“Members of the public are encouraged to lethally remove pythons to help reduce the threat of this species to our native ecosystem,” wrote Harold “Bud” Vielhauer in a letter to PETA dated Jan. 5.
PETA complained about the hunts last month after articles were written about the record 17-foot snake captured by Jason Leon, a contract hunter for the South Florida Water Management District.
A video taken by water management district officials shows Leon explaining how he caught the python and shot it in the head and later in the neck.
PETA said the only humane way to euthanize a python is with a “penetrating captive-bolt gun or gunshot to the brain.
“Proper positioning for the penetration of the captive-bolt or firearm projectile is critical because of the unique physiological characteristics of reptiles, who require immediate destruction of the brain in order to avoid undue pain and suffering,’” wrote Lori Kettler, PETA deputy general counsel.
PETA requested an investigation into the water management district’s program, and others overseen by the FWC.
Since the district’s python elimination program began in March 2017, 877 snakes have been removed from the Everglades.
Vielhauer explains that the commission is committed to “engaging the public in Everglades conservation through invasive species removal,” and mentions no intent to initiate an investigation.
“The Burmese python is an invasive species that has become established in South Florida, including the Florida Everglades and poses a serious threat to native wildlife,” Vielhauer wrote.
Florida invasive species experts have said the water management district’s python hunt has been the most successful in catching the voracious predators and bringing attention to the problem.
A native to Asia, the Burmese python is considered one of the largest snakes in the world. FWC’s website says it was likely introduced into the Everglades by accident or intentional releases by pet owners. While not venomous, “the giant constrictors have thrived, assuming a top position on the food web.”
In a statement, the district says all python killings “must be conducted in a humane manner.”
“Rules of the Python Elimination Program direct all participating hunters to follow American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines in the eradication of these snakes,” the statement said. “District staff review all claims/complaints levied against the program’s hunters and will continue to enforce the rules of the program.”
But in a site witnessed by South Florida Water Management District employees last week, a Florida alligator won a small victory for the state’s locals.
Near the east side of the park, an alligator vs. python encounter ended badly for the python.
The Burmesepython is known to swallow entire alligators and is at the top of the food chain in the Everglades.
It is also is blamed for driving several smaller species of wildlife to near-extinction.
A native of subtropical Asia, the python is believed to have gained a foothold in the Everglades because of the combination of irresponsible pet owners and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which damaged zoos, pet shops and exotic animal warehouses that allowed the reptiles to escape.
Senate President-designate Joe Negron’s announcement Tuesday promoting a plan to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee to store excess water was a surprise to the land owners, according to Florida Crystals, which owns about 60 percent of the properties identified.
In a statement, Florida Crystals said Negron met with a water management consultant for the company on Thursday, but that Tuesday’s proposal was not part of the discussion.
Negron said Tuesday that he talked to the land owners and briefed “them on the plan that I’m putting forward.”
“Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, whose growers’ land falls within the general footprints shown on the map today, was not invited by the Senator,” a joint statement from Florida Crystals and the cooperative reads.
Negron’s office said a senior policy advisor did reach out several times in early June to the cooperative but messages left were not returned.
Negron identified two parcels of land, both about 60,000 acres each and mostly in Palm Beach County, as areas that could become reservoirs to store excess Lake Okeechobee water instead of sending it into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Beginning in February, billions of gallons per day of lake water has been discharged into the fragile estuaries, damaging brackish-water ecosystems and seeding an extensive algae bloom in June and July.
At one point earlier in the year, the Caloosahatchee was getting 4.2 billion gallons per day of lake water, while the St. Lucie was receiving 1.8 billion gallons.
The flows have since been decreased to 420 million gallons per day into the St. Lucie estuary and 1.8 billion into the Caloosahatchee.
But land owners south of the lake aren’t sure about Negron’s plan.
“Taking another 60,000 acres of productive and sustainable farmland out of the EAA will without a doubt close down our sugar mill and put us out of business,” said Barbara Miedema, vice president of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, who said she never got a message that Negron’s office wanted to meet with her. “Sen. Negron’s plan means losing a thousand or more jobs in the Glades communities, not to mention the impact to businesses in the community that provide services to us.”
And some question the feasibility of the $2.4 billion plan, which would mean bonding $100 million in Amendment 1 money and asking the federal government to match the state’s commitment.
The South Florida Water Management District said it did not do the modeling on the land chosen by Negron.
“Everyone is looking for solutions for the system,” Florida Crystals said in a statement. “Our companies strongly support science-based plans that will provide measurable benefits to Lake Okeechobee and the coastal estuaries. Unfortunately, Sen. Negron’s land buy does neither.”
Negron said he knows it won’t be an easy sell to everyone.
“We have our work cut out for us,” he said Tuesday. “In the world of the legislative process and political process, we are in the persuasion business.”
According to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser, the county would be out an estimated $1.3 million in taxes per year if 60,000 acres of agricultural land was no longer on the tax rolls.
Basically, fill a bucket with water, set it on the first step of the pool, and measure the distance between the lip of the bucket and the water level. Do the same with the pool. The water should evaporate about equally in each.
If the pool water is much lower than the water in the bucket after a few days, there may be a leak.
“If the bucket water is lower, the dog’s been drinking out of the bucket,” Eldred said with a laugh.
While there is no discussion of water restrictions, even during the worst of Palm Beach County’s dry spells, pool refills were still allowed. But anyone emptying a pool had to do so onto a lawn or unpaved surface.
Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management sent a special email today alerting residents that it is aware of the algae concerns in the Intracoastal and hopes to have results back from testing within a week.
From ERM: June 23, 2016 Update As a follow-up to our email message distributed this morning related to the ongoing Lake Worth Lagoon fishing and photography contests, we want to share that we are aware of an algae bloom currently affecting parts of the lagoon.
Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management staff members have observed the algae in the central portion of the lagoon, in the vicinity of the C-51 Canal, which borders the cities of West Palm Beach and Lake Worth. A blue-green discoloration along the shoreline is visible in portions of this part of the lagoon.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has taken samples of the algae for testing. It is anticipated that the results from these tests will be available within the next week. When available, results should be posted at the following website:https://depnewsroom.wordpress.com/south-florida-algal-bloo…/.
In the meantime, if you plan to recreate in the lagoon, it is recommended that you stay informed, take appropriate precautions and avoid direct contact with the visible bloom.
Update 1:06 p.m.: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection will test the algae blanketing Summa Beach Park in West Palm Beach.
Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, said DEP asked the district to send samples for examination after residents began asking about the green goo this week.
The C-51 canal, which is discharging about 6,050 gallons per second of runoff into the Intracoastal waterway just south of the park, may be the culprit, algae experts said.
“If this is something new that hasn’t happened before, then it could be an indicator that nutrients are increasing likely from human activities,” said Brian LaPointe, an expert in algae blooms and a a research professor with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
Previous story: A West Palm Beach park along the Intracoastal waterway has been blanketed by a bright green algae that has some residents concerned.
The so-called “green tide” was spotted at Summa Beach Park just north of the C-51 canal, which has been sending runoff from recent rains into the Intracoastal.
Brian LaPointe, an expert in algae blooms and a a research professor with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, examined a photo of the algae for The Palm Beach Post.
He said it’s hard to tell what type it is from a picture, but that it could be a product of the nutrient rich water from the canal being pumped into the brackish environment.
“You have a variety of different species that are opportunistic,” LaPointe said. “It’s all about the timing. They could be out there and then get a slug of freshwater carrying fertilizers and other runoff.”
Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, said the C-51 canal has been discharging water, but said it wasn’t clear if it was the culprit.
“The easy assumption is to say it’s coming out of the C-51, but this is a little north,” Smith said. “Bottom line is there is algae all over the place in South Florida right now.”
The water flowing out of the C-51 is runoff from multiple areas, including Wellington, Royal Palm Beach and the Lake Worth Drainage District. Smith said he doesn’t believe there is much Lake Okeechobee water going out the canal currently.
Lake Okeechobee has a large blue green algae bloom that was measured at 33 square miles last month. Because lake water is draining into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has been conducting tests of blue-green algae toxicity levels in those areas.
Smith said that most recent tests showed toxins in the lake, but not in samples taken at the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie locks.
Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said she wasn’t aware of any specific reports of algal blooms in the area of Summa Beach Park.
The DEP’s algae response website can be found here.
“DEP and Florida’s water management districts frequently monitor Florida’s water quality, and routinely collect algal bloom samples as soon as they are observed as part of this effort,” Miller said. “In addition, staff can be deployed to take additional samples in response to reported blooms – whether from a citizen, other response team agencies or other sources.”
Health department spokesman Tim O’Connor said the department’s general recommendation is not to swim in the Intracoastal waterway near drainage canals.
Just north of Summa Beach, the sandy park west of the Southern Boulevard bridge was free of algae.
“The think about algae is it can grow very quickly when nutrients are available,” LaPointe said. “They can double their biomass in one to two days.”
Coastal Palm Beach County is about 5.5 inches above normal.
The extra rainfall spells trouble for water managers who have to figure out where to put it all.
Lake Okeechobee is still above 15 feet and damaging fresh water continues to gush into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
On Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not reduce releases any further than what it had the previous week.
Currently, about 756 million gallons per day is flowing into the St. Lucie River. About 2 billion gallons per day is going into the Caloosahatchee.
But abnormally low rainfall is not what was forecast for this month. The Climate Prediction Center said earlier this year that March would be abnormally rainy in Florida.
“The highest probabilities of increased precipitation are in Florida, where the impacts of El Nino work out with more certainty than other places in the country,” said Climate Prediction Center researcher Huug van den Dool. “March, April and May will be above normal again.”
And March may still be abnormally wet. With four days left in the month, the forecast is for rain every day — chances ranging between 20 percent and 70 percent.
Palm Beach County will have 150,000 people living in areas at risk of sea water inundation if ocean levels rise as predicted through the year 2100.
Nationwide, 13 million people will live in homes that could be flooded by rising seas, according to a new study released Monday that looked at the vulnerability of coastal counties nationwide.
The paper is the first major study to assess the risk from rising seas using year 2100 population forecasts, according to its authors.
Titled “Millions projected at risk from sea level rise in the Continental United States,” the study is based on analyses by Jason Evans, an assistant professor of environmental science at Stetson University, and two researchers from the University of Georgia: Mathew Hauer, director of the Applied Demography Program, and Deepak Mishra, an associate professor within the Department of Geography.
“This analysis helps put numbers on something long suspected, but that previously couldn’t be quantified very well,” said Evans. “That rapid development of low-lying coastal areas is putting more and more people at risk of impact from sea level rise.”
Evans said Florida is “by far” the most vulnerable state in the nation to sea level rise, with Monroe, Broward and Miami-Dade counties at the top of the list.
About 83 percent of Monroe County’s future population will live in areas that could be flooded by 2100. Scientists believe seas could rise 6 feet by 2100.
In Broward County, 37 percent of the population is expected to be impacted by 2100, while in Miami-Dade County, it’s 36 percent.
The study also looked at how many people would be affected if seas rose 3 feet.
In Palm Beach County, about 26,100 people would likely have to relocate if seas rise 3 feet.
“For Floridians, the biggest take-home message is that our state is by far the most vulnerable in the nation to this climate change-driven hazard,” said Evans.
This study also provides a measure of potential flooding risks in some of the nation’s fastest-growing communities. In fact, more than a quarter of those living in Miami could face coastal flooding by the end of the century if adaptive measures aren’t taken.
Other areas of the nation that could face severe impacts include Tampa, Charleston, S.C., Poquoson, V.A. and Cape May, N.J.
“Current development patterns are continuing to worsen this vulnerability, despite increasing knowledge about the rates of sea level rise and areas likely to experience future impacts,” Evans added.
Starting tomorrow the corps will reduce to 4000 cfs to the west and 1800 cfs to the east.
“Lake levels have been falling as a result of water releases, decreased inflows, and drier conditions,” said Jim Jeffords, Jacksonville District Operations Division Chief. “Although the lake is still uncomfortably high for this time of year, our water control plan calls for lower flows based on current conditions. If the lake starts rising again, we may have to increase flows; it all depends on the weather.”
Last month, the lake peaked at 16.4 feet above sea level. Today it is at 15.83 feet.
No one questions that releasing Lake Okeechobee water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries is incredibly harmful.
Fresh water flowing into brackish water hurts marine life that is more suited for higher-salinity levels, and the dark, sediment-laden lake water looks terrible flowing into the pristine blues of the rivers.
Add in runoff from northern dairy farms that flows into the lake from tributaries whenever it rains, and bacteria from residential septic tanks that goes directly into the estuaries, and a breeding ground for algae is born.
But some are taking issue with a recent Conde Nast article that said “excess sludge” is what’s being sent out of the lake, onto Florida’s shores, and “just in time for spring break.”
“The Lake Okeechobee water is not toxic, it’s not killing people. If you eat fish out of the lake, you’re not going to glow,” said Albrey Arrington, a member of the Water Resources Advisory Committee of the South Florida Water Management District, which is meeting this morning. “It’s definitely technically causing problems, but it’s not toxic in the way people are connoting it is.”
The story also says cattle farmers and sugar producers are pumping water from their fields into the lake.
“The story had some things that were misleading, and I have heard from people from other states that question, ‘Is that really the case because I was planning a trip down there,'” said Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District. “It made it sound like the water coming from the farms is constant and the system doesn’t work that way aside from an emergency situation.”
For 96 hours earlier this year, South Florida Water Management District officials said it did back pump polluted water into Lake Okeechobee to save communities around the lake from flooding.
“The back-pumping has only happened a few times over the past decade,” said Judy Sanchez, senior director of communications for U.S. Sugar. “The main thing is, the water being discharged out of the lake is not coming from the farms.”
Water managers will meet this morning to discuss Lake Okeechobee discharges and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a media call scheduled for 11 a.m. It’s unknown if the releases will be decreased, but he lake is under 16 feet as of Wednesday.
Florida’s tricky water balancing act, created decades ago by man’s determination to turn wetland into farms and communities, has been overwhelmed by more than 11 inches of rain this year — 8 inches more than normal.
Emergency measures have opened the floodgates to allow bloated water catchment areas to send water south into Everglades National Park, and Lake Okeechobee is draining full throttle into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
David Guest, the regional head of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, was quoted in the travel magazine story.
He said today “sludge” isn’t exactly the correct word, and that natural tannins in the lake water are responsible for some of the coloring.
But, Guest said there is manure and fertilizer that runs off the northern farms into the lake creating a toxic situation for the estuaries.
“Every time it rains, you are taking tons of fertilizer and pouring it into the lake,” Guest said. “Industrial farming is pouring manure and fertilizer into the lake and it’s turning into a toilet.”
On Friday. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin. St. Lucie and Lee counties because of the discharges.
The order recognizes “extensive environmental harm to wildlife and the aquatic ecosystem” and “severe economic losses” to businesses that rely on the St. Lucie estuary and the Indian River Lagoon. It authorizes the state’s Division of Emergency Management to coordinate assistance for the three counties from state and federal agencies.
“The big picture here is that state government has simply refused to apply pollution laws to industrial agriculture in this region,” Guest said. “The state of emergency just makes it seem (Scott) doesn’t have his head down the rabbit hole.”
Sending lake water west into the Caloosahatchee and east into the St. Lucie means inundating marine life that thrives in high salinity brackish waters with fresh water.
That alone can cause major damage, including killing oyster beds and sea grasses, said Brian LaPointe, a research professor with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
The sediment in lake water, which adds to the oil-slick look in the Intracoastal near where the river empties, also blocks light from reaching corals on offshore reefs if it gets too heavy.
“But don’t forget, we also have a lot of bacteria and viruses from septic tanks coming from the local watershed,” LaPointe said. “There are multiple sources of freshwater pollution, and they all need to be addressed.”
LaPointe studied the impacts on the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie estuary following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, which came with heavy rainfall. As with this year, LakeOkeechobee discharges combined with local watershed runoff to impact the region.
“Normally when bacteria from septic tanks comes into the marine environment, the higher salinity helps kill it off, but when the salinity goes down because of fresh water coming in with high nutrient levels, the bacteria can grow,” LaPointe said.