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Denham: Community needs to get involved in pulse release fight

By Staff | Jul 28, 2010

More than two weeks have passed since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) initiated a high-volume pulse release of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee on July 11.

So it is no surprise to learn that local leaders from Sanibel are continuing to fight back.

During his City Council liaison report to the Planning Commission on Tuesday, Vice Mayor Mick Denham expressed a great concern for the damaging effects that are already being seen in the waters in and around Sanibel since the latest pulse release began.

"This community needs to get involved with this now, before things get worse," he said. "When there’s red algae washed up on our beaches, I know there’s going to be people coming to City Hall asking us how we’re going to get rid of it."

During rainy season, when the water level of Lake Okeechobee reaches 14 feet up to 15.5 feet, the capacity of the lake is lowered through releases both east and west.

"We get about 80 percent of those releases our way," explained Denham.

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 explained that both the USACE and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), which oversees lake releases, may have a bias against Southwest Florida because the state’s agricultural industry — located to the east of Lake Okeechobee — have powerful lobbyists working on their behalf. They also have lawsuits in place which prevents high-volume water releases to the east of Lake Okeechobee.

He summarized the situation as Southwest Florida’s waters being the "sacrificial lamb" for the pulse releases.

"You make a good point that the community doesn’t get involved until there’s algae on our beaches," said commissioner Tom Krekel.

Denham told the commission that he is continuing to pursue potential litigation against the USACE and SFWMD. The city is considering filing a lawsuit on behalf of the smalltooth sawfish, an endangered species whose habitat in local bays and estuaries would be greatly impacted by these releases.

A meeting with Denham, other city officials and representatives of the USACE is pending.

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.

"I think that enough data has been collected and enough promises have been ignored," said commissioner Paul Reynolds. "We’ve been talking about this issue for what’s going on six years now."