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City shows concern for two major water issues

By Staff | May 12, 2010

Last week, several island entities met with city staff to discuss disaster planning strategies. Pictured from left are Patrick Martin and Paul Tritaik from the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Dr. Rob Loflin of the city's Natural Resources Department and Steve Greenstein, executive director of CROW.

As news of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to grab headlines both locally and nationally, here on Sanibel, that might not be the greatest water-based concern looming off the island’s shoreline.

"We’ve got a double-barreled shotgun pointed at us right now," said City Manager Judie Zimomra. "First of all we have the Gulf oil spill, but that’s no more or less important than the Lake O situation."

For the past several weeks, the city’s Natural Resources Department has been keeping a watchful eye on the water levels of Lake Okeechobee, monitoring the level on a daily basis.

Dr. Rob Loflin, Natural Resources Director for the City of Sanibel, told the City Council on April 20 that the extraordinarily high El Nino-driven rainfall witnessed in recent months has resulted in extremely high water levels at Lake Okeechobee.

The last time the water level rose above 15 feet — 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.

On May 9, the water level at the lake registered at 15.02 feet.

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.

"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," Dr. Loflin 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."

On Tuesday afternoon, the city issued an e-mail alert urging its citizens to take action and contact the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, which manages releases from the lake (along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

"Citizens of Sanibel can impact these releases by writing e-mails and calling for emergency alternative storage sites to be activated," the statement reads. "It is critical that the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board hear about the devastation of these deteriorating water conditions of the Caloosahatchee estuary from the residents."

According to the city’s report, there is so much excess water being released that the Caloosahatchee is pushing freshwater all the way out to the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River at Shell Point, eliminating the critical estuary mixing zone. These releases will negatively impact seagrasses, oysters, scallops, fish, crabs and the federally endangered smalltooth sawfish and its endangered habitat.

"Our concern is that all of the water news has been focused on the Gulf," said Zimomra. "We want our citizens to remain focused on these Lake O releases. Because the Army Corps and Water Management District are public entities, comments they receive from the public can have an impact."

Meanwhile, the city hasn’t forgotten about the massive oil spill still endangering environmentally-sensitive lands, marine life and wildlife along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Last week, Zimomra and members of her staff met with the EOC (Lee County Department of Emergency Management) and disaster contractor (Crowder Gulf) to discuss strategic planning. On Tuesday, she and Mayor Kevin Ruane took part in a meeting with the Board of County Commissioners "to make sure we’re all on the same page." On Wednesday, they were scheduled to meet with the Captiva Erosion Prevention District to discuss local disaster plans.

Zimomra also explained that because nearly three-quarters of Sanibel is dedicated to conservation and protected lands, they have been looking at places like Dauthin Island — located off the coast of Alabama — which is currently being threatened by the British Petroleum oil leak. Much of that island, like Sanibel, contains environmentally-sensitive areas.

"It is giving us an opportunity to learn what is working there… and what isn’t," she said, noting the high rate of boom failure in open waters as well as a hay filter system which has proved ineffective and unsafe for the environment.

She added that because the federal government is only funding "protective activity" — areas that have already been affected by the spill — rather than "preventative activity," the city must remain in a standby mode before it may apply for disaster assistance.

"We want the public to know don’t just keep one eye open — we need to keep both eyes wide open," Zimomra added. "One on the Gulf and one on Lake O."