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Toxic algae, empty promises and the ‘Lake O’ bungle

September 14, 2018
By BOB & GERI QUINN - Homing In , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Having lived here for 39 years, this year's ongoing red tide and algae crisis is the worst we can remember, both from the amount and types of dead sea life washing up on our beaches and in our canals, to the economic impact on businesses and their employees. This is not to ignore the fact that the impact on homeowners living along the numerous gulf access canals and beachfront property throughout Southwest Florida has also been significant this year.

From a real estate perspective, we may not begin to see the full impact of the water quality issues on our housing market until we get through the next 9 months of our seasonal cycles. Right now, we are in the somewhat slower portion of our seasonal cycle, and we will also be comparing the next several months to last year's post Hurricane Irma drop-off in sales. This may make it more difficult to determine any potential negative impacts from the coastal water woes on home sales and prices, if any, until we move back into our peak season next year, which usually occurs sometime between the months of March and June.

As for the crisis with the Lake Okeechobee water releases, which have been plaguing the Caloosahatchee, as well as the St. Lucie River on the east coast of Florida for far too long, it has once again become a political hot potato this year. Candidates and campaigns will be trying to pin the blame for inaction on each other, but as we think you will see, just about every politician over the past 30-plus years has left their fingerprints on this problem.

One thing to realize with the Lake Okeechobee bungle, is that there is plenty of blame to go around on a problem which has roots dating back to 1848. This is when settlers first decided to take what they viewed as useless swampland south of the lake and convert it into farmland by redirecting the natural flow of the water by building muck levees on the south side of the lake. When that approach failed, they dug canals to drain excess lake water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, and they ultimately straightened out the channel in the Caloosahatchee to make it easier to navigate. While this cut down on the travel time in the river, it also effectively removed the river's natural filtration system of winding oxbows.

Another source of the pollution problems in Lake O, comes from the runoff related to the farmland, suburbs and golf courses stretching inland from the Atlantic Ocean, all of which eventually feed into the lake from the north along the Kissimmee River basin. These inland pollution problems can quickly become exacerbated by the torrential tropical rains and natural "sheet flow," as we saw in 2004, when four hurricanes crisscrossed the state of Florida, causing widespread flooding in this large area north of the lake. This ultimately lead to significant water quality issues in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers from lake releases in the year following these storms and prompted numerous political promises to come up with solutions, all of which went unfulfilled. We are seeing the same problems, only worse, in the year following Hurricane Irma, which also dumped a lot of rain on these areas.

An example of this came in 2008, when then Republican governor, Charlie Crist, announced the state had reached an agreement to buy out U.S. Sugar and approximately 180,000 acres of its land. This deal would have provided a path to allow water from Lake O to be released through the natural filter of the Everglades as it flowed south into Florida Bay, the way Mother Nature intended. As the housing and financial crisis unfolded into the Great Recession, it is reported that the state only bought about one-seventh of this land. They have an option to buy the remainder of this land through 2020, but seem to have no interest in exercising this purchase option. This is despite the fact that in 2014, Florida voters agreed to accept a tax on a documentation fee on real estate transactions to go towards buying this land. The tax is being collected, however, the state Legislature is not using this revenue to purchase this land. Sounds all too familiar, doesn't it?

One could argue that the politics behind the Lake Okeechobee bungles have likely intensified over the years, following the passage of a national sugar program by the U.S. Congress back in 1934. And although we would guess this was likely not the origin of the term "sugar daddy," it would certainly seem to qualify as a contender by all definitions, as the sugar subsidies continue to this day.

Here is a quick look back at the history of some of the more prominent failed political promises with Lake Okeechobee.

Back in 1996, Congress was considering an Everglades pollution clean-up bill that would have involved a penny-a-pound tax on sugar companies, but a phone call from the owner of major U.S. sugar company placed to then President Bill Clinton seems to have been enough for the Clinton Administration to withhold its support for the sugar bill, and it failed to get through Congress. This phone conversation was uncovered in the Kenneth Starr report.

To be politically fair, "Big Sugar" got caught hosting Florida Republicans in the form of our current governor and other assorted state lawmakers on weekend junkets to a famous hunting lodge in Texas, until it was exposed by the Tampa Bay Times in 2014.

There is more. Back in 1989, there was a proposal by the state to buy acreage from sugar farmers, and Bob Martinez, who served as Florida's 40th governor from 1987 to 1991, proposed a Surface Water Improvement Management Act involving 76,000 acres south of the lake, neither of which came to fruition. Then, former Gov. Lawton Chiles attempted to settle for a 32,000-acre marsh, with plans to expand it by 36,000 additional acres, as a part of a Lake Okeechobee pollution lawsuit. "Walkin' Lawton's" attempt came up dry. And not to be outdone, in 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush failed in his attempt to clean-up the lake.

Hopefully, the glaring spotlight that has been placed on this issue once again, will result in more than just empty political promises.

(Sources for this column included The Weather Channel's Dec. 8, 2016, report, "Toxic Lake: The Untold Story of Lake Okeechobee," and the Aug. 3, 2018, article by Fred Grimm, titled "Blame Long Line of Politicians for Florida's Recurring Algae Crisis." The information is believed to be reliable, however, it could be updated and revised periodically, and it is subject to change without notice. The Quinns are a husband and wife real estate team with the RE/MAX Realty Team office in Cape Coral. They have lived in Cape Coral for over 39 years. Geri has been a full-time Realtor since 2005, and Bob, who also holds a Certified Financial Planner designation, joined with Geri as a full-time Realtor in 2014. Their real estate practice is mainly focused on Cape Coral residential property and vacant lots.)



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