“Know Your Rights” is a semi-regular column featuring profiles of and conversations with East Coast surfers whose love for the ocean fuels their passions, in turn inspiring a deeper connection to their communities and making the RIGHT coast the BEST coast on which to live.
In the summer of 2016, Florida’s Treasure Coast found itself under siege by an unusual enemy — a noxious, guacamole-like cyanobacterium, more commonly known as blue-green algae, which had overrun waterways and contaminated many local beaches.
That summer’s bloom resulted from a particularly rainy El Niño winter, when billions of gallons of water from nearby Lake Okeechobee were released into the Indian River Lagoon System, eventually entering the St. Lucie River Estuary en route to the Atlantic. Fresh nitrogen-and-phosphorous-rich water coupled with increasingly warm summer temperatures created the ideal conditions for algal growth. Within months, slime was washing up onto Treasure Coast beaches, prompting Governor Rick Scott to issue an executive order declaring an emergency in Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Martin counties.
Aside from emitting an atrocious smell, blue-green algae created a human health catastrophe for the area. Residents of the affected counties reported increased cases of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection linked to algae exposure. While scientists believe exposure has the potential to cause any number of issues in humans, the algae is even more harmful to marine life. It’s estimated that nearly half of all sea grass in the St. Lucie estuary, which serves as a lynchpin to the local aquatic ecosystem, was killed during the 2016 crisis, causing a chain reaction up the food chain.
In an area where summertime beachgoers serve as a cornerstone of the economy, beach closures also had a tremendous impact on local businesses. Weeks of surf camps, which represent a large revenue source for local surf shops, were cancelled. Fishing charters never left the marinas. Bait-and-tackle shops, as well as paddleboard rental companies, were shuttered.
For Stuart surfer Evan Miller, it was the second time in three years since he’d moved back to South Florida from Costa Rica that his hometown had been overrun by the putrid smelling, invasive algae.
“In 2013, I had never witnessed anything of the magnitude of the that bloom,” Miller said. “We couldn’t even go in the water at our local surf break, let alone even think about going in the river that I grew up wake skating, skurfing and fishing.”
In response to the 2013 outbreak, Miller and a group of local activists — many of them from the tight-knit Treasure Coast surf community — started Citizens for Clean Water (C4CW), a grassroots organization whose mission would be to turn the political tide in favor of protecting the area’s pristine natural beauty, by stopping the lake Okeechobee discharges and restoring the natural flow of clean water to the Everglades. When the algae returned in 2016, C4CW — though still a relatively small organization — was prepared to mobilize and fight back.
Using social media and his connection to the local surf community to raise awareness about how the lake discharges were hurting the region, Miller helped stage rallies and educational events, putting pressure on local and state politicians to respond to the crisis.
At a C4CW rally in the winter of ‘17, an aerial shot was taken of a group of several thousand Treasure Coast activists spelling out “Buy the Land”—a reference to the Florida Senate Bill 10, which seeks to purchase acreage south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir.
In April of last year, the Florida legislature approved SB-10, which includes a nearly $2 billion project to build a reservoir to capture discharges south of the lake, treat the water and send it into the Everglades. The bill garnered a broad coalition of support, from environmental advocacy groups like the Indian Riverkeeper to public health institutions like Martin County Memorial Hospital. But SB-10 would likely not have earned such widespread backing if it weren’t for grassroots activism from Treasure Coast surfers like Miller.
“The most pressing issue now for us locally is the completion of the SB10 bill,” Miller said of the legislation that has yet to be put fully into action.
Stuart and surrounding areas are susceptible to such harmful blooms due to a vast web of short-term thinking, unintended consequences, greed and complacency involving the complacency of decades of politicians (from both parties), the Army Corps of Engineers, and special interest groups representing the largest sugarcane producer in the U.S. In the midst of the area’s third, and by far the worst, algae bloom in a little over decade, it took C4CW’s grassroots activism, which drew national attention, for positive changes to be enacted. But the Treasure Coast isn’t out of the woods yet.
“Big sugar’s influence is still blocking the full ecological benefits by blocking us from acquiring enough land to store enough water and convey clean water to the Everglades,” Miller said of the ongoing effort to combat special interest groups. “The reason unfortunately is money. But we are confused because with bad water quality Florida economy will suffer and no one wins.”
Much like the Treasure Coast, the First Coast is surrounded and bisected by complex system of rivers and canals that feed into the ocean through various inlets. And like Stuart, St. Augustine and Jacksonville increasingly wear the brunt of the negative effects related to a changing climate, with successive years of hurricanes battering (or threatening to batter) our coastal communities. Miller and C4CW’s battle to mitigate and reverse the ill-effects of unintended consequences can serve as both a warning and inspiration to those of us value the rich, aquatic-based lifestyle Northeast Florida provides.
We recently caught up with Miller and asked him about his journey from surfer to activist, the battles that await C4CW.
How and where did you get into surfing?
I got into surfing when I was 11. My dad was always a surfer and used to shape surfboards but he actually quit surfing when I was born. The reason was he was working a lot for me and my older sister to take care of us. When I was 11 and I started going surfing my father told me that he was a surfer and a long time shaper and it was going to be fun to get back into it with me. I’ll never forget the day he took me and my sister to the beach after he pulled out this old brown surfboard and told us he was going to show us he could still do it. He dropped into a 6 foot wave and the fin broke out. He went sliding sideways down the face of the wave and ate it. He came in and said, “that’s it I’m making everyone boards” and so my dad would bring me to Sebastian Inlet every weekend and he shaped boards for me and my friends through high school.
My surfing career started when I was 15 at surf central surf shop. I started to work there and I rode for several different companies on the flow program.
When I was 19 my best friend passed away. It really tore me up inside and I decided a few years later to move to Costa Rica. Living the pura vida lifestyle was my college education. I made a living off of tourism being a surf guide and ding repair expert (something I picked up from my dad always making us boards). I lived there for close to nine years before coming home.
When you got back to Stuart the area was in the midst of a pretty gnarly algae outbreak, yeah? How did that affect you?
I returned home to Florida during one of the heaviest rain events in a very long time, which meant disaster for our river. Too much rain equals lake Okeechobee discharges. When I was in high school me and my friends hung out on the river. This was no longer possible. I am a big animal lover myself and the animals I loved were dying or leaving if they could. I still wonder if it was my cultural experiences that provoked me to go against the system of draining the lake into our estuaries and make a big deal about it in the biggest way I could think of. I created a protest at the gates where the water comes through from the lake. Within five days of the event we had a protest of more than 10,000 people. Roads closed, news stations covering the situation, the revolution had begun! I didn’t know how I would keep the momentum going to solve a problem that has been going on for 100 years and has been swept under the table every time we get a dry year and the river cleans up. People tend to forget. This time was different. Little did we know we would have heavy El Nino season rains for the next four years.
What’s the mission of Citizens 4 Clean Water? Why was it important to you to start C4CW?
Citizens for clean water main mission has been to stop lake Okeechobee discharges and restore a natural flow of clean water to the Everglades. I started C4CW in order to never let this issue be ignored again and to bring enough education and awareness of the complexity of our situation that would help encourage our leaders to make the right decision and help us, despite the fact that their biggest campaign contributors had other plans to keep ignoring the issue.
C4CW has grown with time and has become all about clean water education. From reduce, reuse, recycle initiatives to documenting and exposing other water crisis and the people who are making a difference in the fight for clean water. C4CW stays true to its mission to stop the lake Okeechobee discharges, but we are very interested in growing the organization to do more things globally as we have found our method to be very effective.
Talk about the surf community down there and how close-knit it is. I imagine the toxic algae outbreaks have been pretty devastating to day-to-day life there.
The surfing community in Stuart is very small and tight. There is not much industry around us. We feel like watermen are some of the best advocates for our cause. Recently we have put on our first professional contest in order to bring awareness to the entire state. Competitors came from all over including the Caribbean and up and down the East and West Coast. The lagoon awareness pro was a huge success and has potential to remain an amazing event for competitors and clean water.
What is the most pressing issue now related to water quality down there? Big Sugar’s influence? Climate Change? Hurricanes and water releases?
C4CW continues to concentrate on education and awareness events in order to shine the light on water issues and put the pressure on those working against it. Our missions will educate the public and give them the proper tools to overcome problems with clean water. I hope your readers will follow C4CW as we remain at the forefront of the Lake Okeechobee discharges and expand into other opportunities to create clean water.