Relief is on the way for the Caloosahatchee River Estuary, but the question remains, will it be enough?
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) governing board agreed to direct staff to send short duration pulses of fresh water into the river to break up and minimize algae blooms. The board's decision late last week in West Palm Beach came one month after it voted 7-2 to cut off all water flow to the river from Lake Okeechobee.
"The good news is they heard us loud and clear," said Rae Ann Wessel, Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation natural resource director. "The Mayor of Sanibel, other city and county officials and chamber of commerce took time out of their day to go and make our case to the board and put an exclamation point on it."
Photo by RICK BARTLESON
A green hue from a blue-green algae bloom is hard to see, but definitely present on April 7 by a bridge at Barron Park in LaBelle.
Daniel DeLisi, who represents Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Hendry counties on the governing board supports the decision.
"It's a huge victory. First of all, to get a consensus in public of doing something, that in itself is a victory," said DeLisi. "The agricultural community stepped up to allow the release and the environmental community stepped up."
SFWMD staff and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are sampling and mapping the water conditions to determine the size and number of releases needed to flush the algae. The first release over a three-day period is anticipated within 10 days of the April 12 directive.
"Even the agricultural representatives did not object to releasing water, but urged caution," said Wessel, who attended the board meeting. "That's a major step."
The board, however, did not address the rising salinity of the upper estuary where many commercial and recreational fisheries and other species live and reproduce.
"Of the choices on the table, the board delivered potentially more fresh water than the other two choices," said DeLisi. "In my opinion the 300 cfs per day would only exacerbate the situation. To flush the system and do a 300 cfs per day would far overstep our protocols comprehensively."
According to the official statement from SFWMD, "The recommended releases would take place for up to three days, if conditions warrant, to help circulate the water, improve water quality and limit the potential for algal blooms. These recommendations fall under options in the Water Control Plan, part of the guidance documents used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to manage Lake Okeechobee."
Wessel said the local delegation urged followup releases "of a minumum 300 cfs" to keep the estuary from becoming stagnant again, but the board stopped short of meeting that demand.
In March, the board made a decision to cut off all freshwater releases to the river, thus singling out the estuary as the only entity asked to conserve or be restricted from using water during this dry season.
Without flow the river stagnates upstream of the lock and becomes a breeding ground for the toxic algae blooms.
"On April 12 the Lee County Health Department issued a public advisory warning people against exposing themselves, pets or livestock to the Caloosahatchee water," said Wessel. "Hendry and Glades issued advisories in April 13."
The board agreed to flush and further look at its adaptive protocols for future releases, said DeLisi.