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Episode 2: Toxic Water

The sun sets behind the lock and dam on Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River. Photo by Amy Green

When it comes to Everglades restoration, it is difficult to overstate how complicated everything is – and massive. The effort is aimed at recapturing billions of gallons of freshwater that is pumped out to sea, but where to put it all? One suggestion: underground.

We explore this in the second episode of DRAINED, a podcast from WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, about the massive plan to save the Everglades. WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green wades into the controversy around one of the most ambitious environmental restoration efforts ever undertaken.

Listen by clicking on the player above or read the transcript below.

More episodes:

Episode 1: A River Runs Dry

Episode 3: Define Clean

Episode 4: Neverending Restoration

Learn more & subscribe to DRAINED


JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “Alright Ed, here we go. Here we go.

“Alright we’re up.”

AMY GREEN: Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch is a compact powerhouse of a woman with a streak of silver in her course dark hair. In my work chronicling the state’s water problems I have met few Floridians more dedicated to the situation than she is.

JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “Okay, we’re going to head to the St. Lucie Locks and Dam, which is in the C-44 canal, which is the dreaded canal that was dug in 1915 to 1923 connecting Lake Okeechobee to the South Fork of the St. Lucie River.”

AMY GREEN: Thurlow-Lippisch is a governing board member for the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency overseeing Everglades restoration. In her spare time she flies with her pilot husband, Ed Lippisch, above the river of grass, documenting the problems for her blog.

JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “That is how waters are discharged from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River. We call it the seven gates of hell.

“Because there are seven gates, and they open one to seven depending on how much water the army corps discharges through that gate. And it is truly the seven gates of hell.”

AMY GREEN: I’m Amy Green.

From WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, this is DRAINED — a podcast series about the massive plan to save the Everglades.

Episode 2, Toxic water

On a bright Saturday morning in August Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch and her husband took off near Stuart, in their B55 Baron Beechcraft.

I asked Thurlow-Lippisch to record the flight on her cell phone, as social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic prevented me from flying with them.

JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “When you’re up here it is so beautiful in spite of the water issues. You see the bright blue Atlantic Ocean. You see the darker-colored Indian River Lagoon, the beautiful savannahs. This is Florida. Florida. Everything is at stake with Florida’s waters. If we don’t have our waters in order, we don’t have Florida’s future in order.”

Everglades backcountry. Photo courtesy Everglades National Park

AMY GREEN: It’s possible you’ve seen Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch’s photographs of large discharges of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee, as it flows through the St. Lucie River to the river’s delicate estuary on the Atlantic Ocean. In the images the dark lake water appears ominous, like a shadow spreading across the aqua-marine brackish water of the coastal estuary.

The photographs have appeared widely on social media and in the news. That’s because in 2016 and 2018 the lake discharges — water that nature intended to flow south into the Everglades — helped trigger widespread blooms of toxic algae.

Think of Lake Okeechobee as the beating heart of the Everglades, but it’s a diseased heart.

Central Florida’s cattle ranches to the north create nutrient pollution that flows into the lake. Nutrient pollution also used to flow into the lake from the sugar and vegetable farms to the south, through a practice called “back-pumping” that has been discontinued.

The nutrients — and we’ll talk more in the next episode about one nutrient in particular, phosphorus —  they function in our waterways in the same way they work in the fertilizers we use on our lawns and crops: They can feed harmful algae blooms like toxic blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which has been documented in Lake Okeechobee since 1970.

Remember how in Episode 1 I described how draining the Everglades now prevents the river of grass’ natural flow south from Lake Okeechobee? The lake water now flows east and west, through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers before it is dumped at the coasts.

When there’s toxic algae on the lake, the discharges enable the blooms to spread, which is what happened in 2016 and 2018.

The St. Lucie Locks and Dam is at the center of the controversy because that is the spot where the lake water enters the St. Lucie River on its way to the fragile estuary on the coast.

JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “There they are, the seven gates of hell. They are closed right now, thank goodness.”

AMY GREEN: Thurlow-Lippisch grew up in Stuart, and she’s spent a lot of time on the St. Lucie River.

JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “I’ve loved the St. Lucie River my whole life. Mostly waterskiing and just going on family boating trips. Walking along the shorelines looking at all the wildlife and the birds. It was always a place of beauty and solitude and reflection for me as I was growing up.

“Sadly now it’s a reflection of destruction.”

AMY GREEN: After looping over the Indian River Lagoon the plane turned east, following the St. Lucie River to Lake Okeechobee. Thurlow-Lippisch recalled the algae in 2016.

JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “The lake is 730 square miles. So when you’re flying over it at 200 miles an hour, 1,000 to 1,500 feet over it, to see it again and again and again and again is a shocking thing to see.

“It’s beautiful in a strange way because of the bright color, but it’s toxic. That’s why it’s that color. In nature when things are that bright it means, Stay away! Warning! And that’s the algae that goes into the St. Lucie River when we open up the gates.”

AMY GREEN: The toxic algae prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to make Florida’s water problems a priority of his administration.

JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “I think that the toxic algae was the tipping point. And so I think it is speeding up Everglades restoration.

“The bottom line is, everybody knows that water is in trouble. And water means business, and water means recreation and water means families, and we have to fix our waters if we’re going to have a Florida we can all love and enjoy.”

AMY GREEN: Today Florida is booming as the nation’s third-most populous state. It’s hard to imagine that only a few decades ago ours was a frontier state, basically, a subtropical one. And we have Everglades drainage to thank for our growth. But draining and replumbing the Everglades has led to a cascade of ecological consequences. Among the most obvious recently has been toxic algae.

Everglades restoration is a problem to be solved. To me the Everglades are like a puzzle, a Rubik’s cube I can’t put down. Everything is so complicated. One question leads to another, and another and another, and then I’m hooked! And when it comes to restoration it really is difficult to overstate how massive everything is.

Image courtesy Everglades National Park

STEVE DAVIS: “My name is Steve Davis, and I am the vice president of communications and engagement as well as senior ecologist with the Everglades Foundation.

“Some people might think Everglades restoration is one project. And it’s really a collection of many projects that when built and functioning together deliver the benefits that we all envisioned.”

AMY GREEN: The effort is composed of 68 projects, each massive on its own; each project spans some 1,500 to 1,800 pages of planning documents. I was trying to visualize this, and so I asked Fred Sklar of the South Florida Water Management District to help.

AMY GREEN: “I mean, can I just ask you: Do you actually have a copy of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in your office?”

FRED SKLAR: “Well, I have so many books in my office that I had to expand to the hallway. So it’s, yes, it’s in my, it’s in the hallway. And it’s called the Yellow Book.”

AMY GREEN: “And how many, like, how many volumes is it? Like, can you give us a sense of what this thing looks like?”

FRED SKLAR: “Um, I think it’s about six volumes. There’s appendices. There’s five appendices. And there’s three technical documents. And then there’s the main document, and I think the total number of pages is probably close to 4,000.”

AMY GREEN: I mean to me, that’s mind-boggling.

Back in 2000 when then-President Bill Clinton signed Everglades restoration into law, there were two fundamental goals: One was to restore a more natural flow. The other was to retain more of the vast amount of freshwater that drained from the Everglades and was wasted, basically, at the coasts. To accomplish this the plan included a series of reservoirs and other projects, but one project stood out. It was the stuff of science fiction. Here’s how it was supposed to work:

The project involved drilling some 300 deep wells, called aquifer storage and recovery or ASR wells, around Lake Okeechobee. Water from the surface would be injected into the wells and stored more than a thousand feet underground.

And here’s where it gets even more unbelievable. The plan’s designers believed that the water from Okeechobee and the Everglades, once injected into the aquifer, would float like a bubble above the brackish water naturally found in the aquifer. When needed, the water that had been pumped underground could be pumped back to the surface to increase the water levels in Okeechobee and the Everglades as needed.

Nothing like this ever had been attempted anywhere at such a scale. What’s more, it wasn’t clear that this underground storage system could even work or — and this is the more troubling aspect — that it wouldn’t damage Florida’s sensitive aquifer, which is critical to the state’s drinking supply.

When I first read about this proposal, I was incredulous. What?! This doesn’t even make sense!, I thought.

STEVE DAVIS: “Conceptually this is a great technology because it allows you to have a very large volume of storage available at any particular time.”

AMY GREEN: But I had some doubts, and I wasn’t the only one.

STEVE DAVIS: “You’re taking polluted water from the surface, injecting it into an aquifer. How is that going to affect the aquifer over time? How is the quality of the water coming out of the ground going to affect the ecology of the system on the surface?”

AMY GREEN: This entire idea sounded implausible to me, and so I asked Charles Lee of Audubon Florida whether anyone at the time actually thought the project was realistic.

CHARLES LEE: “Let me take you back a lot earlier when a fellow by the name of John F. Kennedy stepped forward and said that the nation would put a man on the moon in a decade.”

AMY GREEN: He suggested the plan to reverse-engineer the draining of the Everglades was kind of like a moonshot. He brought up a concept involved in Everglades restoration called adaptive management: The plan needed to be flexible to account for new technology. The plan is expensive, and there needed to be political will to do it.

CHARLES LEE: “Once the nation accepted that there was going to be a man on the moon within a decade, the technology began to fill in the gaps. And as a result, we had a man on the moon in, I believe, a little less than a decade.”

AMY GREEN: Lee described the wells as a “placeholder” – that’s the word he used – for the vast quantity of water needed to restore the Everglades.

CHARLES LEE: “People who had concerns about ASR, why it could be explained away by saying, ‘Well, yes, we know the technology is not completely proven. It’s in pilot project stages, but we think it’s close enough that it will be.'”

AMY GREEN: The U.S. Geological Survey — the federal agency tasked with studying the nation’s natural resources — disagreed.

By 2004 the federal agency raised significant concerns about the ecological safety of the wells. The agency’s primary concern was that the water injected into the aquifer wouldn’t float like a bubble above the aquifer water, as the idea had been presented. The injected water, which is contaminated with fertilizer and other runoff, would mix with the water inside the aquifer, effectively polluting one of Florida’s most significant drinking water sources.

The so-called moonshot that was 300 aquifer-injection wells shows how one of the most vexing challenges of Everglades restoration remains without a solution: Where are we going to put billions of gallons of water?

AMY GREEN: Even though Everglades restoration was signed into law in 2000, progress at first was sluggish. One reason was because although Congress had approved the effort in 2000, with the understanding the federal government and state would share the cost evenly, each project within the effort required additional congressional authorization.

STEVE DAVIS: “The thinking was that if the state and the federal government each chipped in about $200 million a year – so a $400 million investment total – that over a period of about 20 years – by about now 2020 – the restoration construction would be largely complete.

“Over that 20-year span from 2000 to about 2019 or so the federal government only hit that $200 million mark once. In fact, most of the time they were below $100 million. So funding has been lagging at the federal level to where today this 50-50 partnership has been about 72% or so state of Florida and maybe 28% federal government.”

AMY GREEN: Then in 2008 a blockbuster announcement: Charlie Crist, the governor at the time, said the state had reached a nearly $2 billion deal where the state would buy out U.S. Sugar Corp., the nation’s largest and oldest sugar producer. U.S. Sugar’s vast fields, made possible by the draining of the Everglades, are south of Lake Okeechobee. Crist, then a Republican, said the state would use the land for Everglades restoration. The land acquisition would have been the largest in state history.

FRED SKLAR: “It was huge. We, of course, it would have made a very big difference. It would have moved things along. Like a lot quicker.”

AMY GREEN: The deal was characterized as a historic breakthrough in Everglades restoration because it appeared to offer the best solution yet for reviving the natural water flow south. More than a dozen Everglades restoration projects were stopped so the state could concentrate financial resources on the deal. Among the projects was a reservoir that not only was the largest and most expensive part of the restoration. It would have been the largest of its kind in the world.

But within a few months, with homeowners nationwide falling into foreclosure, the economy collapsed into the Great Recession. In 2010, the state closed on a fraction of the U.S. Sugar land Crist had sought to acquire. The state said that was all it could afford.

STEVE DAVIS: “And so that deal was restructured as a series of options that ultimately was killed because as the economy recovered, the situation for the sugar industry recovered and they no longer wanted to sell their land.”

MARY RADABAUGH: “Wow. Um, I don’t even know how to describe what we’re seeing. It’s green. It’s blue. It’s black. There’s rot. There is slime. There’s a complete mat of two or four, probably six inches of rotting algae. And the smell is comparable to a portalet that’s been sitting in the hot sun for about three months. It’s really probably the worst smell you’ve ever smelled.”

Mary Radabaugh in 2016. Photo by Amy Green

AMY GREEN: I first met Mary Radabaugh back in 2016.

MARY RADABAUGH: “It’s Mary Radabaugh – R-A-D-A-B-A-U-G-H – and I am the manager here at Central Marine, Stuart.”

AMY GREEN: I had driven down to Central Marine to report on that outbreak of toxic algae Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch had talked about at the top of this episode.

Normally the blue-green algae cannot survive in saltwater, but that toxic summer water managers were dumping so much freshwater from rain-swollen Lake Okeechobee the algae forced Atlantic beaches to close over July Fourth weekend. It made national news.

MARY RADABAUGH: “You can see the flies that are on the top of it, they’re eating the rot. So that’s like the sewage that is out there. You can see the big brown spots that look like sewage. Then you have the green, and then there’s blue mixed in the green. And so it’s just a, it’s a really, really bad situation.”

AMY GREEN: The blooms sickened Floridians, disrupted business and tourism and left marine life belly-up, prompting emergency declarations in multiple counties. This area, where the St. Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean converge, was especially hard-hit.

Central Marine was situated in an alcove …

MARY RADABAUGH: “This is called Haney Creek.”

AMY GREEN: … lacking the circulation that could have prevented the guacamole-looking algae from blooming, dying and rotting all in one place, layer upon terrible layer. Boats bobbed sadly in the slop.

MARY RADABAUGH: “This also not only possibly has horrible health effects, and to us humans and wildlife, but it also has been seen to have corrosive properties in some of the vessels. So you know, there’s a lot of damage to be done with this algae apparently.”

AMY GREEN: Employees coped with face masks, air purifiers and air fresheners.

The toxic algae led to a legislative proposal for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, in the Everglades Agricultural Area, near the sugar fields. The proposal was aimed at jump-starting construction on that reservoir project under Everglades restoration that had been stopped for the U.S. Sugar buy-out, which never happened.

In the Everglades Agricultural Area the politically powerful sugar growers bitterly fought the proposal. They characterized the reservoir as scientifically unsound and unnecessary, even though all parties already had agreed to it under Everglades restoration. The growers favored a reservoir north of the lake, which also was part of restoration. They also considered the acquisition of more farmland to be an economic threat, even though U.S. Sugar executives hadn’t seemed too worried about that back in 2008 when they had agreed to completely sell out to the state.

In 2017 the reservoir won the approval of legislators, who agreed it would be built primarily on state land, and I’ll tell you more about that in the next episode.

Back in September I called Mary Radabaugh again to catch up. She didn’t work at Central Marine anymore. She and her husband both had been let go in March at the start of the pandemic. The marina had suffered through another outbreak of toxic blue-green algae in 2018, and although this one had coincided with a rash of red tide that had gripped much of the peninsula, at Central Marine she said the outbreak had not been as bad as it was in 2016.

AMY GREEN: “So these two years 2016 and 2018 taken together, what kind of impact did that have on Central Marine financially?”

MARY RADABAUGH: “I really can’t estimate since I’m not there any longer what the actual impact financially was to the whole company. But when people stop using their boats, the boats don’t need repair. The manufacturers have to slow down. It just trickles down throughout the community and all the businesses that are marine-related.”

AMY GREEN: And here is what I think about when I consider how long Everglades restoration is taking: I mean, how long can people like Mary Radabaugh and businesses like Central Marine hang on?

AMY GREEN: “What is the solution? What needs to happen?”

MARY RADABAUGH: “We need this immediately. We need to fix what we, man made, which is very not right.

“There a lot of things that I really believe could be done, but political wills don’t let it.”

Next on DRAINED, Episode 3, “Define clean” – —

RICK ROTH: “So my best choice is to stay here and do the job right and enjoy being a farmer in the EAA. And it’s really cool when you think about it. That’s what life is really all about. It’s about dealing with challenges, whether it’s your marriage, or your kids in college, or whatever. It’s about working through the problems.”

AMY GREEN: DRAINED is a podcast from WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s reported and hosted by me, Amy Green, and edited by Trevor Aaronson and Matthew Peddie. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus. Mac Dula, Jenny Babcock and Ryan Ellison provided additional production help. Cliff Tumetel also contributed. Special thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press.

Thanks for listening.

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Amy Green

About Amy Green

Reporter and Producer

Amy Green covers the environment and climate change at WMFE News. She is an award-winning journalist and author whose extensive reporting on the Everglades is featured in the book MOVING WATER, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and podcast DRAINED, available wherever you get your podcasts. Amy’s ... Read Full Bio »