Florida’s beaches are usually bustling with tourism in February and March. This year, it’s a different story. Intense winter rains have raised the waters of Lake Okeechobee, located in the sparsely populated inland area of South Florida, requiring the body of water to be drained into the surrounding coastal areas. This toxic drainage will cause severe environmental damage as well as negatively impact South Florida’s local economy.

Officials became concerned late January after the water level in Lake Okeechobee, one of the largest  U.S. freshwater lakes, reached a foot above the normal level. Okeechobee has an aging water dike that is likely unable to withstand the added pressure from the rising waters.  South Florida water managers made the decision to start draining the lake into the Florida coast.

Just one small catch: Lake Okeechobee’s water is intensely polluted.

Sugar cane pollution pumped into Lake Okeechobee. Photo courtesy Sierra Club Florida News. http://www.sierraclubfloridanews.org/2012/07/sierra-club-opposes-plan-to-pump-sugar.html

Sugar cane pollution pumped into Lake Okeechobee. Photo courtesy Sierra Club Florida News.

Lake Okeechobee has been a dumping vessel for local industry due to obscenely permissive policies. Big sugar and other agriculture companies have been dumping toxic chemicals, fertilizers, and cattle manure into the lake for years. Okeechobee is so polluted that it has often been dubbed a “toilet.” The lake’s polluted state is problematic on its own. Now the polluted waters are being drained at 70,000 gallons a second through two local rivers into the Mexican Gulf and Atlantic Ocean.

The drain from Lake Okeechobee creates immediate concern for the impact on Florida’s marine life. The toxic chemicals and fertilizers could have disastrous effects on the ocean’s flora and fauna. The chemicals in the water cause algae blooms, which are known to poison shellfish and cause harm to other members of the oceanic ecosystem. Reports have already surfaced of dead fish along the coastline. Non-native species that migrate to Florida during the winter months are also at risk.

South Florida’s local economy is another victim of the toxic sludge. The algae blooms make the water unsafe for swimming, and people are being warned to avoid contact with the water. South Florida residents who run beachfront hotels, restaurants, concession stands, paddle board rentals, and fishing charters are in a panic, and a number of protests have swept through the area.

“The dead ocean creatures and red tide have an immediate impact on my business,” reported an innkeeper on Southwest Florida’s Captiva Island.

“How many people will never come back because of this?” a protester told a TV reporter in Southwest Florida. “Can’t go swimming, can’t go fishing, boating’s gone down the tubes.”

To make matters worse, coastal Florida is also coping with flooding due to the heavy winter rains. The drainage from Lake Okeechobee will only make it worse.

Local politicians demanded that Florida governor Rick Scott declare a state of emergency to compensate local businesses for their losses. In response to the pressure, Gov. Scott rerouted some of the Okeechobee drain from the oceans to the Florida Everglades. Moving the filthy water around, however, provides no solution.