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Toxic Algae, Local Estuaries, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas: A Chat with "Friends of the Everglades"

courtesy Friends of the Everglades

While the COVID-19 pandemic is raining devastation on us right now, the natural environment and all its living creatures seem to be… benefitting. Polluted skies are clearing. Sea life is teaming. Wild animals are just hanging out in abandoned playgrounds!

We wonder - just how is this showing up on the Treasure Coast? So we called Eve Samples, executive director at Friends of the Everglades in Stuart, a nonprofit organization started by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1969.

ES: Actually, the St. Lucie River looks incredibly beautiful right now. It has nothing to do with coronavirus. It’s because we’ve been lucky the last couple of years to have Lake Okeechobee levels kept lower during the dry season.

Credit courtesy Friends of the Everglades
Eve Samples, executive director for FRIENDS OF THE EVERGLADES, in front of the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Florida

Samples worked for years as a journalist with TCPalm, covering the local environment and toxic algae blooms, before joining Friends of the Everglades in February. She warns our waterway problems aren’t going away just because we’re distracted by COVID-19.

ES: The problem with the Everglades has been for many decades a lack of clean, fresh water being sent south. Actually there were fires in the Everglades just within the last couple of weeks and that’s because Florida was re-plumbed decades ago and Lake Okeechobee water was diverted east to the St. Lucie estuary and west to the Caloosahatchee instead of allowing it to flow slowly south in the river grass as Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote about back in 1947.

That’s when she wrote the book The Everglades: River Of Grass.

ES: Which made the Everglades known as a national ecological treasure, not just a swamp as some people thought of it. This is a problem we have been working to fix for many years and now it’s compounded because of toxic algae blooms we have seen in the St Lucie estuary and Caloosahatchee in recent years. These are major risks to human health.

Here's how it works: so, Lake Okeechobee is managed as a reservoir for large industrial farms south of lake Okeechobee.

ES: We think it should be managed more as a natural system … And that doesn’t mean farms shouldn’t get their water – they absolutely should – but we also need to make sure that we’re not managing the lake in a way that creates these toxic algae blooms by sending billions of gallons of polluted lake water to the estuaries during rainy years.

This is their major focus now and part of why they recently moved headquarters to Stuart.

ES: We see this northern end of the greater Everglades ecosystem as really critical and we’re working to change federal policy and state policy so that water managers are protecting us all and helping to keep our waters clean.

We want to find out more about Friends of the Everglades founder Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

ES: She founded it to stop a major airport from being built in part of Everglades National Park.

When we hear her name, we can’t help but think of the Parkland school shooting and the students from the high school that bears her name.

ES: Marjory Stoneman Douglas was visionary and bold and ahead of her time. She was unafraid to challenge special interests. So, when we see kids in Parkland holding her up as a hero, we totally identify and think she can be a hero for a lot of causes and the Everglades is of course chief among them. We can’t think about the future of the estuaries and the Everglades without thinking about kids.

So now during this quarantine period, they have re-launched their Young Friends of the Everglades Program as a virtual education portal on their website.

 I’m a mom. I have a 11-year-old son at home doing virtual school now and I know how necessary virtual learning materials are these days.

Here are links to resources: https://everglades.org/learning-activities/ and https://everglades.org/