“What Price Paradise?” by Eric Eikenberg CEO Everglades Foundation

What is the value of the wading birds in Everglades National Park? What price do we put on the fish in Florida Bay? Or clean drinking water for the 8 million people living in South Florida? The Everglades is an ecosystem like no other on Earth – multiple ecosystems, actually, that are home to 77 different endangered species.

It is a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Preserve, home to two national parks, a national preserve and a number of other wildlife refuges and management areas. Beyond that, the Everglades is an economic engine that propels billions of dollars annually in value to the Florida economy. A 2010 study by the Mather Economic Group confirms that every dollar
invested in Everglades restoration projects yields a four dollar return.

It’s no wonder as the Everglades supports a multi-billion dollar tourism and hospitality industry, not to mention real estate and construction industries worth many times that much. Consider recreational fishing alone. Fishing is big business in
Florida, drawing nearly 1.2 million anglers from across the globe to what have long been the most popular fishing destinations in the world, including the three most popular fishing destinations in the United States.Fishing alone creates 80,000 Florida jobs and propels a $10.3 billion Florida boating industry.

For three of the last six years, however, anglers and other visitors who came to Florida expecting to see gin-clear waters and pristine beaches have had to endure toxic blue-green algae in our estuaries; add to that the persistent problem of
red tide along our coasts, and the risk to our state’s economy is easy to see.

Nobody would want to put a toe in the algae choked waters of the central coasts during these episodes, much less take a boat out into foul smelling (and toxic) red tide. The Hotel Association of nearby Lee County reported that the 2016 algae outbreaks forced 92 percent of the hotels in and around Fort Myers to suffer cancellations. As images of dead fish and sea
life, blue green algae and red tide were beamed across televisions and social media worldwide, every hotel, resort and rental property along the Florida coast had to field the same question from anxious tourists: “How bad is the algae near your place?”

The cause for the algae outbreaks is the discharge of nutrient laden Lake Okeechobee water into the Caloosahatchee and Indian River estuaries – discharges that also waste precious fresh water that is needed to sustain the parched Everglades during Florida’s dry season. Scientists have long known that construction of a massive water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee will, together with other projects already underway, reduce the algae causing discharges by more than half.

Two years ago, the Florida Legislature approved funding for the state’s 50 percent share of the project, and Congress last year authorized the federal share. Given the impact of the project on Florida’s economy, Governor Ron DeSantis has requested that the Florida Legislature set aside funding to expedite the project. DeSantis has also asked President Trump to include matching dollars in his budget request.

What happens next will determine whether Tallahassee and Washington place the same value on America’s Everglades that folks here do.

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