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The Caloosahatchee Connection to the U.S. Sugar Purchase

By Staff | Feb 27, 2009

The State of Florida’s offer of $1.34 billion to purchase 180,000 acres of land from the U.S. Sugar Corporation may seem to be strictly an Everglades issue but it is a critical piece of a three part solution to restore the Caloosahatchee and estuary. Anyone who was here in 2004, 2005 and 2006 will never forget the sight of the river, covered with a thick green layer of toxic algae. Anyone on Sanibel at that time remembers the red drift algae blanketing the beaches. Both were the result of massive amounts of excess, polluted freshwater that had – and still has – only two outlets: the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. The unwanted water flooded the estuary and fueled harmful algal blooms, decimating seagrass , oysters, fish and blue crabs.

Historically, the Caloosahatchee River was not connected to Lake Okeechobee. The river began at the western end of Lake Flirt, located two miles east of LaBelle and perched 4-10 feet above the Caloosahatchee valley. The Caloosahatchee was fed by water that spilled out of Lake Flirt, over a waterfall and a quarter mile of rapids to make its way through 300-400 crooked bends on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The water in Lake O spilled south and moved slowly through the vast Everglades river of grass until it reached the 10,000 Islands and Florida Bay at the bottom of the peninsula.

Lake Okeechobee had no connection to the east and only flowed west when the lake reached its highest levels, spreading out through the marshes surrounding a series of lakes between Lake Okeechobee and Lake Flirt.

Hamilton Disston changed the Caloosahatchee forever when he dynamited the rocky ledge at the western edge of Lake Flirt and dredged a canal eastward to connect the lake and river to Lake Okeechobee. In the succeeding 120 years, Lake Okeechobee was diked to prevent the disastrous flooding of communities south of the lake, and canals began to spread through South Florida like spiderwebs. Canals moved water south for agriculture, and southeast to provide water to the developing urban areas of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Lake O is fed by the Kissimmee River, historically the crookedest river in the state. In the 1960s, the Kissimmee was channeled, widened and deepened, bringing more water more quickly into Lake O, which was now constrained by a dike. This direct route eliminated the water quality benefits of the natural system that sheet flowed water slowly across a one-to-three-mile-wide floodplain before it reached the lake.

How will the U.S. Sugar purchase help?

The U.S. Sugar land purchase will: 1) Re-establish flow south out of the Lake to the Everglades; 2) Provide a third outlet for water and increase the capacity to store water and 3) Provide water for the water-starved Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and Biscayne National Park. The restored flow and additional storage capacity will benefit the Caloosahatchee; without this opportunity, it will be nearly impossible to fix the problems that plague our river.

To visualize just how much water came down the Caloosahatchee in 2005, Figure 1 shows what the optimum flow level is for the health of the river and estuary (in blue); what the actual flow was (red) and how much storage capacity would be needed to absorb the excess (green).

Viewed in a different way, in 2005, 4.5 million acre-feet were discharge to tide through the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie rivers, an amount equal to seven feet of lake water (Lake Okeechobee is 730 square miles). Stacked on the 180,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land, the water would be 25 feet high. If it was stacked on Sanibel Island, it would be 275 feet deep. One million acre-feet of water stored south of the Lake would eliminate 85 percent of the excess flows to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

What’s the deal?

The current contract is for the State to purchase 180,000 acres of land from the U.S. Sugar Corporation for $1.34 billion. U.S. Sugar had a 60-day period – which expired on Feb. 23 – to receive offers from other interested buyers. If they choose the State’s deal, the South Florida Water Management District will have until Sept. 25, 2009 to determine if or how much of the purchase they can finance. If U.S. Sugar takes the States offer and backs out of the deal after Feb. 23, they would owe the state $40 million; if the District decides they can’t find the financing, there is no penalty. Under the current contract, U.S. Sugar will be able to lease back the land for six years at $50/acre.

Since U.S. Sugar land is not all contiguous and does not connect south to the state-owned Water Conservation Areas (which feed into the Everglades), some of the U.S. Sugar land will need to be swapped with other growers to create a “corridor” (see Figure 2). To help offset the cost of the purchase, any of the 180,000 acres not needed for storage, flowway or swapping could be sold to help finance the deal and provide additional areas for agriculture to continue. The Everglades Foundation has estimated that a total of 130,000 acres will be needed for the flowway and storage.

The Lease Back Provision

Florida Crystals, the other large sugar producer, has taken issue with the $50/acre lease back rate in the U.S. Sugar deal because it is below the market rate of $175-$200/acre. The lease rate requires U.S. Sugar to pay the taxes on the land, maintain all the infrastructure canals and pumps, keep the land clear of exotics and be subject to stricter Best Management Practices (BMP) for fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use. Interestingly, it has come to light that Florida Crystals has been leasing 20,000 acres from the State for $59/acre and just last week applied for an extension of the lease for another two years.

Other alternatives to the deal?

In 2005, one of our worst years, the Caloosahatchee received 3.3 million acre-feet of excess water. The solution to managing these kinds of excess flows depends on the restoration of three systems; the Kissimmee basin, water storage south of the lake and the Caloosahatchee basin. The U.S. Sugar land should provide 1 million acre-feet of capacity while the Kissimmee basin can accommodate an additional 1 to 1.5 million acre-feet. There is another 400,000 acre feet of storage needed in the Caloosahatchee basin.

For the Caloosahatchee storage, SCCF has been lobbying the state to not swap lands west of the Lake, including Southern Gardens (citrus) and Disston Island (see Figure 3). Some of the highest nutrient loading into the Caloosahatchee is coming from the Disston Island/S4 basin area. Converting this area from agriculture to water storage and treatment will help by removing a source. It will provide an area that can clean up water coming from the lake and can help restore the historic 7,776-acre Lake Hicpochee.

Will the U.S. Sugar deal alone clean up the river?

The U.S. Sugar deal is essential for preventing continued excess flows into the Caloosahatchee (as well as too little freshwater during droughts). However, stopping excessive Lake water from coming into the river does not solve all of the problems with excess nutrients.

Of the Nitrogen coming into the estuary from the Caloosahatchee, only 38 percent comes from Lake Okeechobee as measured at Moore Haven(S-77); the remaining 62 percent is coming from the Caloosahatchee’s own watershed (as measured at Ortona S-78 and Franklin S-79). Only 11 percent of the Phosphorus is coming from the Lake, while 89 percent is coming from the Caloosahatchee basin.

Excess nutrients are also a problem during the dry season when there is not enough flow to the river. Before the river was dredged, it was fed by springs that provided a source of freshwater and flow, even during the dry season. These springs were corrupted when the river was dredged to 25 feet deep. Today the lock and dams pool water between the lake and estuary. During the dry season, there is often not enough flow to keep the pools from stagnating. Stagnant, nutrient rich water encourages blooms of toxic blue-green algae, like the one seen in Figure 4. The bloom forced the temporary closure of the Olga Water Treatment Plant, which is the only Lee County water treatment plant that draws its water from the river. Some forms of blue-green algae contain liver toxins that are not removed by water treatment, so when these blooms occur, the plant is shut down. The plant provides water to 30,000 residents in East Fort Myers and the City of Fort Myers.

To achieve real restoration in the Caloosahatchee as well as the St. Lucie, Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and Biscayne National Park, we must pursue a three-pronged solution that includes:

1) The ability to flow water south out of the lake for dry season flows and wet season relief to the estuaries;

2) Kissimmee restoration to provide more storage and treatment north of the lake where much of the pollutants originate and, finally

3) We must add storage throughout the 75-mile long Caloosahatchee watershed to address the pollutants from our own backyards.

The U.S. Sugar purchase provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to achieve real restoration throughout the Greater Everglades Ecosystem.

To learn more

SCCF is co-sponsoring the Annual Conservation Forum at BIG ARTS on Wednesday, March 4, with SFWMD Governing Board Vice Chair Shannon Estenoz, Everglades Foundation Senior Scientist Dr. Tom Van Lent and SCCF’s Rae Ann Wessel. This will be a unique opportunity to ask questions of those who are involved with the purchase and restoration.

Co-sponsored by SCCF, BIG ARTS and the Everglades Foundation, the Forum will be at 7:30 p.m. at BIG ARTS. Tickets are $20, available through BIG ARTS, by calling 395-0900.