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Spills: Oil and toxic water

August 22, 2018
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

In 2018 tourists paid to visit Lee County beaches that were littered with dead fish and endangered sea turtles and whale sharks, all killed by a marine red tide bloom. Tragic and horrific are the words most commonly used to describe the graphic images captured and shown around the world by 24-hour news and cable services. Adding insult to injury, all of this was accompanied by unbreathable air that drove paying guests and locals off the beaches and into the safety of their hotel rooms.

Up and down the Gulf Coast, warning signs were posted and beaches closed. Some brave tourists remained and tolerated the stench. Others though, packed their bags and left taking their unspent vacation money and bad memories with them.

Tourists and locals are asking: Why does this environmental crisis occur and get worse every year?

Most seem to agree that Lake Okeechobee's aging infrastructure is inadequate and unable to hold more water, as well as permit an adequate flow of fresh water southward to the moisture starved Everglades. The solutions, of course, are in those pesky details - the how and when?

Standing in the way of common sense solutions are historical decisions that ignored the dangers associated with agricultural and residential runoff, as well as harmful Lake Okeechobee water-release practices that benefited agriculture at the expense of tourists.

Although agricultural interests in Southwest Florida are important and provide important jobs, they pale in financial significance when compared to tourist revenues generated in Lee County alone!

Yet as presently structured, current Lake Okeechobee water levels and release schedules have been politicized and benefit agricultural interests while harming wildlife and tourist interests.

Clearly, political Lake Okeechobee win/loss propositions are not acceptable or financially viable.

Continuation of current political practices risk the yearly interests of over 3 million Lee County tourists who spend $3,000,000,000 (yes, that's billion with a "B") and pay over $37,000,000 in bed taxes, not to mention several million dollars in bridge tolls. Indeed, one in five adults are employed in tourist related work. Clearly tourists are the underappreciated financial drivers of Lee County and the Southwest Florida economy.

For example, my family visits Sanibel (Island Inn) three to four times a year, plus our annual family reunion. Our annual tourist expenditures (we pay for the kids and grandkids) are $50,000 to $60,000, not including airfare. Over any 10-year period, our financial contribution to the Southwest Florida economy is more than $500,000.

I have been visiting Sanibel and South Florida since 1957 and have never seen red tide this bad. Southwest Florida's sunshine, pristine waters and natural wildlife are standard inducements for tourists like me to come and spend money. But Southwest Florida's reputation has been severely damaged by the 2018 toxic water crisis and it will take years to recover. Many tourists, after having their 2018 water-based vacation ruined, will never return and never spend money in Southwest Florida!

A question for elected officials and their staffs:

How are cataclysmic oil spills different from Okeechobee effluent spills, whatever the cause?

The short answer: Oil spills are not tolerated by elected officials and the public. Unlike Okeechobee effluents, offending oil companies contain and then stop the spill, direct a multi-million-dollar eco-system clean-up and then make financial restitution to their victims (Think Deepwater Horizon).

Like an oil spill event, Southwest Florida business losses will be significant and funds for anticipated expansion and/or improvements will be scrutinized, if not canceled, in the absence of immediate and reasonable implementation of red tide solutions.

Like an oil spill event, tourists all over Southwest Florida are voting with their feet, their dollars and leaving Florida. Rooms are unrented and store isles deserted because tourists refused to breathe the dead marine life stench and witness unacceptable environmental disasters.

Like an oil spill event, next year's tourists will vote with their feet and select non-Southwest Florida destinations if poor water quality returns and river waters are the consistency of guacamole.

Like an oil spill event, property values along Southwest Florida's polluted waterways will decrease.

Unlike an oil spill, the state of Florida can do something about preventing nutrient pollution at its source.

Finally, Southwest Florida needs immediate and common-sense solutions, not more: action-free meetings, diversionary mitigation studies, empty promises, political posturing, repeated emergency declarations and indeterminable delays.

Yes, it is a very complicated and complex problem, but if this year's water disaster tells us anything, it is that Southwest Florida does not have the luxury of more time to solve an ongoing environmental and toxic water crisis.

Failure to act now will result in declining wildlife populations, a declining number of tourists and, finally, declining taxes and a persistent loss of vital tourist revenues.

Tourist axiom: Bad reputations and experiences are difficult and expensive to "mitigate."

Joe Orndorff

Cincinnati, Ohio



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