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Changing water releases from Lake O and their effect on our estuary

By Staff | Apr 23, 2009

A member of PURRE wrote recently to ask about the quality of our water with respect to releases from Lake Okeechobee. As everyone can see, our water quality has improved this year. Certainly the lack of massive releases of water from the lake is helpful.

Water releases are a difficult challenge for the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. We are all familiar with the need to keep the dike safe during a time when the lake gets too high and we are working on solutions to provide alternatives to water releases into the rivers.

But not all releases are bad.

There are environmental reasons to keep some water flowing down the river. Too much nutrient-rich water can cause harmful algal blooms which damage the estuary, while not enough can allow salinity to creep up the river which is also not good. In addition, lack of water flow up river can cause stagnation and lead to algal blooms. It is tough to find the right balance and make the best decisions.

The water releases from Lake Okeechobee after the storms in 2004 and 2005 were blamed for a variety of water quality problems in our watershed including massive amounts of red drift algae. With the current drought, Lake Okeechobee is in pretty good shape in terms of depth, but water is still coming down the river, not to lower the lake but to help maintain the proper salinity in the river. There is plenty of water as the lake is at about 12 1/2 feet, which is well within the “operational band” of 9.7 and 17.25 feet. The Army Corps has been making these periodic releases since last fall.

While this is positive for our water quality that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods. This is something we need to watch very closely. In addition, much work remains if we are to clean up the Caloosahatchee watershed and continue to restore the Everglades. PURRE is working on a number of fronts and coordinating our activities with the City of Sanibel, Lee County, the Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Since we began our efforts, many at all levels of government have taken it upon themselves to work on policies and programs to help move, store and clean water in our estuary. This is a long process and there is a lot going on including the proposed building of a reservoir up the river, establishing “total maximum daily loads (TMDLs)” of pollutants to limit those pollutants in the river, buying the land currently owned by U.S. Sugar to establish a southern flow way for excess water in Lake Okeechobee, and much more.

If we do have a heavy rainy season later this year, there will be a need to release more water down our way. PURRE, along with many other organizations, have worked together with the Corps of Engineers and the Water Management District to revise the release schedule to have more flexibility to limit the releases. However, if there is a need to lower the lake level, we will once again see significant amounts of fresh water in our area. It is still to be determined how that will impact our watershed, but rest assured PURRE will continue to work on these challenges.