Sanibel fights back against Army Corps pulse releases
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Mick Denham and councilman Jim Jennings spoke out against the high-volume water release currently under way from Lake Okeechobee. The release was authorized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and initiated on July 11.
Only July 9, the city was notified by the USACE of their decision to begin a 12-day pulse release from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.
"The target flow to the west is an average flow of 4,000 cfs over the 12-day period. measured at S-77 (Moore Haven Lock and Dam)," an e-mail from Lake Okeechobee basin manager Luis Alejandro of the USACE. "The target flow to the east is an average flow of 1,800 cfs over the 12-day period, measured at S-80 (St. Lucie Lock and Dam)."
According to the city’s Natural Resource Department director Dr. Rob Loflin, the current release is approximately 30 percent greater than the "normal" pulse releases conducted in the past. He added that the amount of discharge being released by the USACE is "not justified."
During rainy season, when the water level of Lake Okeechobee reaches 14 feet up to 15.5 feet, the USACE and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) lowers the capacity of the lake through releases both east and west. However, the greater releases sent westward of the lake triggers damage throughout the Caloosahatchee, as the nutrient-rich water spurs harmful algal growth. Damages also includes killing sea grass beds throughout the bays and estuaries located in Southwest Florida.
Denham, one of the city’s leading in the fight against high-volume pulse releases from the lake, again bemoaned the water management practices employed by the USACE and SFWMD.
"This community has to get excited about this because of the damages to our beaches and wildlife," he said, noting that the city will continue to move forward with the smalltooth sawfish lawsuit, created as a means to prevent future pulse releases. "We’re going to take this as far as we can."
Denham explained that he feels both agencies may be biased against Southwest Florida’s fishing industry because the state’s agricultural industry — located to the east of Lake Okeechobee — have powerful lobbyists working on their behalf to protect their interests.
Jennings also spoke about a letter he wrote on the city’s behalf to both Congressman Connie Mack and Senator Bill Nelson, which pleaded for the end of pulse releases.
"We know from experience we will be subject to algae blooms if these intolerable release levels continue," his letter reds, in part. " Our estuaries are fragile. The estuaries of Southwest Florida were devastated four years ago when 85 percent of local sea grasses were killed from Lake Okeechobee releases. Our estuaries will not recover for decades."
Jennings also stated that the USACE may have "pushed the panic button" in implementing the current release.
Fellow councilman Peter Pappas agreed that the concerns of Southwest Florida appear to have been ignored.
"Right now, there’s no flow way to the south (of Lake Okeechobee)," he said. "What it comes down to is the power of the east coast versus the west coast."
In the past, the SFWMD agreed to develop a plan for storing excess water capacity from the lake during rainy season. Although a five-year plan had been introduced in 2004 — following Hurricane Charley —no action to develop such facilities have been moved forward.
Jennings’ letter to Mack and Nelson also stated, "Since there is no tropical weather in the forecast, no rise in lake levels, and no expectation of any exceptional south Florida rain events, we don’t see the need for the Corps to panic and release so much water that severely damages estuaries on both coasts. The current 12-day pulse release schedule is not justified and represents a a bad water management decision."
Dr. Loflin added that at a meeting conducted on Tuesday, there appeared to be "a good chance" that lake releases would be reduced to a lower discharge rate. However, he also said, "The damage has already been done."