The Salvation of a Clean Water Summer

Ohana Surf Shop is one of dozens of local businesses on the Treasure Coast that has struggled. After discharge years cost the shop thousands of dollars in surf lessons and paddleboard excursions, we caught up with them to get a first-hand account of what this year’s clean water summer really means for a small, family-owned business.

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Short answer: Everything. During the summer of 2016--when the water in the St. Lucie River was too toxic to touch--Ohana owners Tara and Jordan Schwartz bought a converted school bus, thinking it was insurance. If they couldn’t make a living putting people on their home waters, they’d bus clients up or down the coast where the water was clean. It worked for a while. But the toxic summers kept coming, and last year, no matter how far they traveled, there was no safe water for their customers.

“When the water is clean, we can count on two paddle board trips a week. Last year, we only had two the entire summer. We’re a small shop, that kind of financial blow can ruin you,” Schwartz said.

This year things are different. Local waters are finally clear and Ohana is enjoying an uptick in sales and activity that the Schwartz’s hasn’t seen since 2015. Tara Schwartz knows why:  the operation of Lake Okeechobee that helped to secure a summer without toxic discharges. For her and many others here, the Clean Water Summer is restoring hope after what feels like annual disasters.

But that’s not the really good news. 

This week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to change the way it operates Lake Okeechobee to protect communities like ours from the health threats posed by cyanotoxins discharged into South Florida’s estuaries. After decades of worsening conditions, this is a first.  The Corps’ planned deviation from the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS)--including the option to store less water in the lake to leave room for rainfall--will provide flexibility to manage the system when toxic blooms occur upstream.

No one in the history of our fight to fix this broken system has known what it feels like to win a round. Few dared imagine, and they probably never guessed it would be called a “planned deviation.” 

It’s worth a read, outlined here in a USACE draft "Harmful Algae Bloom Operational Strategy" and corresponding email. It says, essentially, that our government recognizes the ill effects of exposure to harmful algal blooms and its duty to do more to protect the public by operating the lake levels differently. It also recognizes that there are limitations based on the current law from Congress.

That might sound dry, but it changes everything here.

At Ohana Surf Shop, the Schwartz’s are deeply grateful for the what the Army Corps’ actions this year mean for their future. Just about everyone in this community feels the same, but there’s a bigger debt of gratitude we want to acknowledge: to Bullsugar supporters.

You stood with us alongside thousands of others, sharing personal stories, fears, sometimes painful accounts of feeling helpless and doomed and unable to break through the bureaucracy and corruption that made the decline of this place seem inevitable. Even some of the solutions have felt beyond reach, tied up unwinnable funding battles, or leviathan public works projects with price tags and due dates that only drift farther out of reach.

It’s not fixed yet, and too many of us have seen promises taken away with the stroke of a pen. But the progress we’ve made this year against the backdrop of clean, clear, beautiful water--and the protection for our communities' health we could further secure with the implementation of critical legislation like the PROTECT Florida Act to modify operations of the Central and Southern Florida project--is different: It comes without a massive taxpayer cost or a horizon too far off to honestly believe in.

We’re still getting used to what this feels like. As Tara Schwartz said, “We expected the worst this year because that’s what we’ve learned to expect.” 

But we also expected that we still had time to save this place. What we’re learning these days is, we were right.

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