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Nancy Smith

Everglades Foundation, Pied Piper of Humbug and Hype

April 18, 2015 - 6:00pm

If Florida lawmakers are a little skeptical of information the Everglades Foundation puts out as fact, good for them. I applaud their instincts.

The more I look at where the EF's science has been and where it's going, the more I find to question.

It's true, the foundation has an army of followers in South Florida, particularly among those beleaguered souls who experienced algae blooms and poisoned rivers east and west of Lake Okeechobee in 2013. I saw the water back then; it wasn't as bad as they say, it was worse. No wonder so many fall in behind the soothing flute they hear from the pied piper of bad science.

The tune they're playing is hype. Effective on residents desperate for answers and somebody to blame. But it's part of a PR campaign promulgated by people with a great deal of money, the support of the federal government and influence on a broad stage. They know full well they're peddling bellywash but somehow believe they've crossed the point of no return and mustn't admit any part of where they're taking Florida is dead wrong.

I ask you. Look at what the University of Florida water study actually says ... not what the pied piper tells his followers, what the study actually says.Recommendations are on page 9.

After UF's No. 1 recommendation (complete and accelerate existing projects) and No. 2 recommendation (storage and treatment north of Lake Okeechobee), No. 3 is this:

"Independent assessments suggest that an expansive gravity-driven wet flow-way throughout the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) may not be feasible or provide maximal benefits to the estuaries."

Did you get that?Flowway may not be feasible ...In fact, not only isn't it feasible, it's downright lethal, perhaps even criminal for Florida Bay. But I'll get to that in a minute.

No. 3, however, does say, "Achieving substantial reduction in lake-triggered discharges to the estuaries and substantial improvement toward the dry season Everglades demand target will require additional land between the lake and the EAA, e.g., the current U.S. Sugar land purchase option, lands from other willing sellers, and/or use of existing state-owned land (e.g., Holey Land and Rotenberger Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs)."

So, like the wording in Amendment 1, the UF study doesn't specifically recommend the U.S. Sugar purchase. It's given equal treatment with "lands from other willing sellers" and "use of existing state-owned land."

No. 4, incidentally, calls for deep-well disposal of excess flows -- "the option of constructing a system of large injection wells to permanently dispose of excess flows to Lake Okeechobee in the deep Boulder Zone, rather than discharging to the estuaries, should be explored."

No. 5 suggests operational changes ... "a substantially revised regulation schedule that provides more storage in the lake ..."

For more than two decades, marine biologist Brian Lapointe tried to show scientists at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that their theory on what was killing coral, seagrass and fish in Florida Bay wasn't, as they insisted, hypersalinity -- too much salt water. Lapointe admits it was rough going trying to have a conversation with them.

"Scientists often disagree," he told me in a telephone interview. "That's good, because that's how advances are made. But this was different. Zieman and Jones, the foundation and the sanctuary and the Keys Nature Conservancy -- they all circled the wagons and went overboard to discredit everything I was saying, even though I was presenting papers to show I had the evidence."

In December 1994, after a New York Times Magazine piece by William K. Stevens, "Will Remedy Worsen a Sick Bay?" -- a story questioning Florida's hypersalinity/just-pump-more-fresh-water theory for saving Florida Bay -- the Times received a sharp letter to the editor from John H. Ryther, scientist emeritus at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

"There is no question that the Bay is suffering from a bad case of eutrophication (excessive growth of algae) that has turned its once crystal clear waters to pea soup. It is the imputed cause of the eutrophication that I take issue with. The latter is not just wrong, it is completely bakwards. The method proposed to correct the situation would almost certainly make it much worse."

What Lapointe had discovered more than two decades ago, and what was corroborated by other algal scientists in scientific journals and in in-depth newspaper stories was that the missing quotient in the Zieman-Jones hypothesis was nitrogen -- the chemical that primarily comes from agricultural runoff and sewage.

"Zieman and Jones were only worried about phosphorus," Lapointe explained. "They knew wetlands can clean up phosphorus. So they insisted the bay only needed more fresh water flowing through the 'Glades and into the bay to heal the reefs, get the coating of slime off them. But fresh water wasn't the problem. The problem was, wetlands don't clean nitrogen."

Nitrogen works in combination with phosphorus to create eutrophication.It's eutrophication -- or over-enrichment by nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and silica -- the chemicals that come from sewage outfalls, industrial and agricultural runoff -- that create sheets and blooms of algae that degrade and ultimately destroy life-giving coral reefs.

In fact, in 2007 investigative reporter KenWeiss, reporter Usha Lee McFarling, and photographer Rick Loomis of theLos Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for their series, "The Rise of Slime." The series covered research in the Florida Bay/Florida Keys region and based breakthroughs Lapointe's hypothesis.

But scientists Jay Zieman and Ron Jones had become so invested in their hypothesis that the bay needed more fresh water flowing south, pumped from canals in the Everglades Agricultural Area, that they couldn't -- or wouldn't -- turn back even when they realized they should.

"Between 1991 and 1995, when they were sending the greatest deluge of water south -- as they want to again -- the effect was horrific," Lapointe told me. "Because wetlands can't deal with such concentrations of nitrogen, the volume of water was sending literally thousands of tons of nitrogen into Florida Bay, and then, combined with the phosphorus ... algae blooms are nitrogen limited, so it was like we were feeding the algae with Miracle Gro."

Said Lapointe, "How bad was this wrong hypothesis? Some 40 percent of Florida Bay's coral reefs were lost in the blink of an eye. It was one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history."

If you haven't already, read Bob Malloy and Will Bourne's 1996 manuscript written for the New York Times Magazine, but never published. I wrote about it last week.

It was George Barley, co-founder with Paul Tudor Jones of the Everglades Foundation, who officially brought Zieman and Jones aboard theNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration'sfledgling Keys Marine Sanctuary. Barley was a respected Central Florida multimillionaire who, like his friend Paul Tudor Jones, bought a home in Islamorada and became active in environmental matters in the Everglades and the Keys. Zieman and Jones morphed into the scientists for the Everglades Foundation, too.

The Everglades Foundation is still underplaying the role of heavy nitrogen content in the health of Florida Bay, and its goal is still to run fresh water down into Florida Bay as "the answer."

At the Everglades Coalition meeting in Key Largo this past January, the theme was "Send It South" -- which says it all. "Clearly, they have no intention of abandoning their hypothesis even now. Yes," Lapointe said, "water needs to be sent south, but into places where it can be stored so that nitrogen can be cleaned out as well as phosphorus."

Lapointe calls himself now only "a concerned scientist." But I say he's far more than that. He's an algal physiologist, director of the Marine Nutrient Dynamics Program at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. He has lectured around the world on the effects of coastal nutrient pollution, and after 30 years of research in waters in and around Florida, we ought to be listening to him.

In 2002, the Committee on the Restoration of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, or CROGEE, questioned the prevailing, bogus hypothesis that too much salt water was killing Florida Bay. The committee acted as an independent advisory panel to the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. It was a fancy name for a group of state and federal agencies overseeing the multibillion-dollar Everglades Restoration.

The important thing is what the report concluded: "The widely held perception that the murky, ailing Florida Bay will recover when the Everglades restoration sends more fresh water there could be wrong. ... Restoration plans as they now exist could actually harm the bay instead of improving it."

Said Lapointe, "At the 2014 Everglades Coalition meeting, I showed the 30 years of nutrient and chlorophyll data documenting how Everglades runoff is linked to eutrophication in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary." He sent me a paper on Looe Key monitoring, published as a case study of eutrophication in a NOAA report in 2007; a recent Indian River Lagoon paper, which draws comparisons with the algal blooms and nitrogen-enriched waters of Florida Bay.

None of it seems to matter even now," he says. "It seems those on the payroll want to continue 'business as usual.'"

NOAA is an arm of the Department of Commerce, whatelse can we expect?

On the other hand, this year is the 25th anniversary of The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary -- as good a time as any for self-examination. Rumor has it in Washington that NOAA is in hot pursuit of answers. The agency wants to knowwhy the coral reefs in Florida Bay and off the Keys have deteriorated at a faster clip than reefs off any other nation in our region of the world -- never mind the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the last 25 years that went into trying to save them.

It will be interesting to see how public that investigation gets, if there is an investigation at all.

In the meantime, legislators might want to pause when they hear/see the words "Send the Water South." Ask the pied piper or some of his faithful what he means by that.


Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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