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Miami Water & The World

August 8, 2009

Dear PURRE Members:

The below blog entry from the University of Miami School of Communication discusses the effects of pollution on the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge; PURRE's efforts and Chairman Michael Valiquette are featured. This is a good reminder that the devastation of the past is not yet cleaned up - in fact, long-term consequences remain unknown - and that another strong algae outburst "could be disastrous" for the refuge according to its deputy manager.

University of Miami School of Communication

Joseph B. Treaster: Water and the World
A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on a Warming Planet

July 9, 2009
Florida Wildlife Refuge Struggles With Pollution But Still Beguiles
Published by Joseph B. Treaster
SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla.–Just a few yards inside the gate, my wife spotted an Ibis—pure white with long pink spindly legs, curved beak—poking around in the mangrove for a meal. A little further along in the  J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge we saw a great blue heron and four egrets out on a sandbar with a thin covering of water.

The tide was running out and soon the sandbar would break the surface and begin baking in the hot Florida sun. The birds would move on, lifting off in the warm, moist air like graceful ballerinas, in no hurry, going no place in particular.

We were taking the paved gravel road through Ding Darling out of season and at an ill-advised time of day, neither early morning nor early evening. Yet we were seeing a sizeable swath of mangrove and tropical greenery not far from Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida that seemed as wild as what the pioneers came across more than 130 years ago.

A black anhinga, just back from diving for a mullet, perched on a nearly submerged bit of mangrove and spread its wings to dry in the streaming sunlight. A young roseate spoonbill, with a long white neck and pink-streaked feathers spreading over its fuselage, dipped its head into the salt water.I’ve been coming to Ding Darling for years and it has always been a treat. But the 6,400-acre refuge has struggled with severe pollution. 

Experts who watch Ding Darling closely say it is gravely threatened and could ultimately be destroyed by discharges of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee, 75 miles inland. The water is loaded with fertilizer and waste water that cause eruptions of toxic algae.

In 2004 and 2005 Ding Darling was beset by algae that smothered huge swaths of sea grass and sucked the oxygen out of the water. Truckloads of fish died, according to Michael J. Valiquette, the chairman of the Planning Commission or zoning authority for the upscale town of Sanibel, which shares the island of Sanibel with Ding Darling.

The loss of the fish and the sea grass left little for birds to eat and flocks of them pulled out. The damage, which never attracted much attention beyond southwest Florida, was still evident in  2006. The refuge is recovering, Mr. Valiquette said. But he said full recovery could take a decade.

Mr. Valiquette, who is also both a home builder and an environmentalist, founded an organization called People United to Restore Our Rivers and Estuaries or PURRE in 2004 as the algae problem was beginning.

Patrick D. Martin, the deputy manager of Ding Darling, said he worries that the long-term consequences of the algae outbreak have yet to be uncovered.

Lake Okeechobee, in the heart of Florida’s richest farm land, is drained off whenever it threatens to top or topple its dikes and flood nearby towns.

Mr. Valiquette and PURRE are urging lawmakers to restrict fertilizer use and are pushing for federal legislation to help clean up the refuge and to dig further into the effects of the pollution. But he and other experts say Ding Darling is in danger of another pollution assault anytime Lake Okeechobee’s water level must be drastically lowered.

“All the pieces are in place for this to happen again the next time there is a big hurricane” with heavy rain, said Mr. Martin, the deputy manager of Ding Darling.  And, he said, another strong outburst of algae could be disastrous.  “I don’t think we’d be able to perpetuate the refuge,” Mr. Martin said.

The United States Corps of Engineers, which helps manage Lake Okeechobee or Lake O, as it is often referred to, recognizes the damage that the lake water inflicts on Ding Darling and other parts of the Gulf Coast. But its first responsibility is to protect lives.  James Evens, an environmental biologist for the City of Sanibel, said, “Public safety always trumps the environment.”

The refuge was established in 1945, after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a newspaper editorial cartoonist who won two Pulitzer Prizes, helped block a land development project on Sanibel Island and persuaded President Harry Truman to create a wildlife sanctuary. The refuge was renamed in Mr. Darling’s honor in 1965.  During the Roosevelt years Mr. Darling served for 18 months as the director of what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and later was a founder and the first president of the forerunner of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Ding Darling refuge is not a manicured place. When a tree falls, the wind and the tides decide whether it will stay or drift away.  In one concession to convenience, the authorities have built a few boardwalks and small platforms with stainless steel railings so that people can get out from shore and closer to the birds and other wildlife.

It was hot and muggy the day my wife, Barbara Dill, and I were there. We saw few other people. A man in a red baseball cap came along one of the boardwalks. It was Michael Ahlgrim, a retired chemist from Cologne, Germany.  The water near us was copper-colored. But you could see the sandy bottom and there was no sign of pollution. 

“The water looks good,” Mr. Ahlgrim said. “It’s clear. You can see the fish.” He had just seen some turtles that I had missed.
Mr. Ahlgrim and his wife, Hiltrud, were making a swing around Florida, their 11th trip to the United States, this time without their grown children. “We like the U.S.,” Mrs. Ahlgrim said. Then she talked about Ding Darling. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. “So quiet. People who come here want to see wildlife. And because of that they are watching and listening.”



think about this...

"We must build a peace in South Florida - a peace between the people and their place, between the natural environment and man-made settlement, between the works of man and the life of mankind itself. "
~ Florida Gov. Reubin Askew ~