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City concerned about high water at Lake O

By Staff | Apr 21, 2010

Few people are complaining about the unusually wet weather that has been seen throughout the traditionally dry spring season. However, while the 12-plus inches of precipitation is a welcome surprise for lawns, trees and other outdoor elements, there remains a potential crisis for the island’s shorelines and local estuaries.

Dr. Rob Loflin, Natural Resources Director for the City of Sanibel, told the City Council on Tuesday that the extraordinarily high El Nino-driven rainfall witnessed in recent months has resulted in extremely high water levels at Lake Okeechobee. As of Monday, the level reading at the lake stood at 14.78 inches.

According to Dr. Loflin, the last time the water level rose above 15 inches – 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.

“There is always the potential for a dry late spring with high evaporation rates and a late start to the rainy season that could ameliorate the current conditions and provide some protective freeboard in the lake,” Dr. Loflin stated in a memorandum to City Manager Judie Zimomra last week. “However, if that does not occur, destructive lake releases can be expected this summer as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who manages lake levels, tries to take pressure off the deteriorated Herbert Hoover Dike for fear it will fail and flood lakeside communities.”

Five years ago, the high volume releases from Lake Okeechobee were considered to be a primary contributor to the red drift algae which washed up on Sanibel and Captiva’s beaches as well as killing marine grasses and oyster beds throughout the Caloosahatchee River and within the bays and estuaries of Southwest Florida.

Since the issue of public safety has always taken precedence over the health of local waterways, Dr. Loflin expects that should the Army Corps of Engineers call for a high volume release of lake water, the potential for another algae event here on the islands remains a definite possibility.

“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,” he noted. “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.”

Vice Mayor Mick Denham expressed his concern for the potential high volume water releases, adding that he will continue to monitor the lake’s water levels.

“It is an unfortunate situation, but there’s very little we can do about it,” Denham said.

Dr. Loflin told the council that he will remain in contact with the Army Corps of Engineers while continuing to suggest other methods of lowering the lake’s water level, such as storage and low volume releases in directions other than east and west of Lake Okeechobee.

“We need to find other places to put this water, but that’s not going to happen this year,” he added. “We’ll need some more time.”

“The only thing we can hope for is a drier season,” said Mayor Kevin Ruane.