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Officials start Lake O release

By Staff | Oct 3, 2008

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the second of two planned “pulse releases” from Lake Okeechobee earlier this week, some of which will flow into the Caloosahatchee River.

In an effort to keep water levels on the lake at optimal levels, up to 2,200 cubic feet will be released into the Caloosahatchee every second over a 12-day period ending Oct. 11.

Michael Valiquette, chairman of People United to Restore Rivers and Estuaries, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of South Florida waterways, said the releases could set off a “circle of death.”

It all starts when the nutrient-rich water from Okeechobee is released into the Caloosahatchee, spurring the growth of blue-green algae.

“The nutrients feed the algae, then the algae explodes in growth. It mixes with the saltwater in the river basin,” Valiquette said.

The algae dies after flowing into the saltwater, and falls to the river bottom, creating sediment that kills the sea grass there. That sea grass is vital to maintaining the surrounding sea life, feeding some manatees and providing a place for fish to leave their eggs.

“You’ve got a circle of death,” Valiquette said of the process.

Connie Jarvis, environmental resources manager for Cape Coral, said that scenario is not inevitable.

“I don’t anticipate that happening, but you never know. It depends on how many nutrients there are,” Jarvis said.

Instead of the pulsed releases done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, People United to Restore Rivers and Estuaries has pressed for a continual flow, or “trickle release.”

“If they opened up the locks and let that water gradually flow out, they’d help everything. It gives the water time to adjust to the nutrient levels,” Valiquette said.

Water levels on Lake Okeechobee currently stand at 14.95 feet above sea level. The maximum optimal level is 15.5 feet, but with water levels expected to increase in the near future, the releases are being done to offset the rise.