Last Wednesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District started a 10-day series of scheduled water releases from Lake Okeechobee. This release is supposed to end this weekend, but with the rainy season — and hurricane season — just around the corner, future water releases into the Caloosahatchee and neighboring rivers, bays and estuaries may continue well into the summer months.
None of this is good news for us here on the islands, least of all the marine wildlife and ecosystems which makes their home in Southwest Florida waterways.
As we reported in the past several issues of the Island Reporter, recent water levels at Lake Okeechobee have hovered above 15 feet. The last time the water level rose above 15 feet — following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized a high volume release of water due to the threat of flooding to towns which surround the lake.
As a result of those high volume releases from Lake O, a significant amount of red drift algae washed up on Sanibel and Captiva's beaches. Experts say that those releases contributed to killing marine grasses and oyster beds throughout the Caloosahatchee and within the bays and estuaries of Southwest Florida.
"The nutrient-polluted lake water is expected to exacerbate an existing overgrowth of brown filamentous algae now present in much of the grassbeds in San Carlos Bay and Pine Island Sound," said Dr. Rob Loflin, Sanibel's Director of Natural Resources. "As this brown drift algae is separated from the grassbeds by wind events and starts to drift, there is a potential for brown algae washing up on area beaches from this inshore source this summer."
Other experts are equally confounded by the reasoning behind the Lake O releases.
"With the amount of water that's in the lake right now, about 15 feet compared to about 10 feet two years ago ... they're definitely going to dump water off that lake and there's nothing we can do about it," Michael Valiquette, chairman of People United to Restore our Rivers and Estuaries (PURRE), said in an interview last week.
So, how come five years later, confronted by the same problem, has a solution never been established?
According to PURRE, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first needs to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike.
Second, the SFWMD — which pledged in 2005 to provide some 450,000 acre-feet of water storage area, an amount equivalent to one foot of water off the lake — has never followed through on that promise.
We recognize that such a storage system is not going to be constructed overnight, or even in the coming months, but doing nothing to correct the problem is unacceptable. Both the Army Corps and SFWMD must explore viable options — such as establishing a spillway between the two westernmost canals feeding into the Everglades Agricultural Area, creating a flow-way south of Lake O — if they wish to show even a modest concern for the health of our delicate ecosystems which could again be negatively impacted by large water releases.
"Until alternative storage is available and the U.S. Sugar purchase moves forward, there are few alternatives for the amount of water being dumped out the estuaries to tide," said Carla Brooks Johnston, former Mayor of Sanibel.
As of last week, a plan to incorporate 73,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land — or 377,000 acres less than what was initially conceived — has been set aside for water treatment and storage within the Everglades Agricultural Area. That's not perfect, but at least it's a reasonable start.
Currently, Johnston notes, the U.S. Sugar purchase is "the most meaningful opportunity" we have to relieve the high flows to the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie rivers. As a result, these could recreate the natural flows south out of Lake O to the Everglades, Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay.
In other words, dumping 3.2 billion gallons of water each day out of the lake would cease.
That sounds like a pretty good solution to us. We urge our readers to support this idea and let our state and federal policy-makers know how important the creation of water storage areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee are.
It is time to find a solution and fulfill a promise.
— Reporter editorial