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City pressures officials on Lake O discharges

By Staff | Aug 8, 2013

Courtesy of SCCF The dark plume of water coming through Redfish Pass on July 10, 2013, looking south toward Captiva and South Seas.

The real question is, is anybody out there listening?

Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane recently fired off letters to South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) officials, State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto, U.S. Congressman Trey Reydel and U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio regarding the high flow discharges currently under way from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee watershed and funding water quality solutions to the resulting yearly damage to Sanibel tourism and the economy.

“I want to try a different approach this time – the economy, involving the Horizon Council, Tourist Development Council (TDC) and the environment,” said Ruane.

Ruane met recently with SFWMD officials, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lee County officials and others that was supposed to last 90 minutes, but instead lasted more than two hours to discuss the discharges and the need for additional water storage to alleviate the dark stained waters washing up on Sanibel and other area beaches and waterways.

“I think the meeting was quite helpful,” said Ruane. “I’ve also met with Radel and Benacquisto over lunch and will be going to Radel’s listening tour, so I’m getting face time. The color of the water is disturbing, though some say it seems to be clearing a little.”

Lake Okeechobee water level is at 15.91 feet, as of Aug. 5. According to Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans, it was at 12.0 feet at this time last year.

“The normal management of the lake level is from 12.5 to 15.5 feet,” said Evans. “We are almost four feet above last year because of all the rainfall.”

Will the Mayor’s correspondence and meetings with officials do any good in the short term or even long term?

“That’s a completely different issue,” said Ruane.

Ruane’s letter to SFWMD stated: “Research conducted by a consortium of scientists from 2008 to 2010 contracted by the City of Sanibel and Lee County determined that the algae blooms that plagued area beaches (following 2004 through 2006 hurricnaes) were directly related to nutrient runoff. The primary sources of the nutrients were attributed to regulatory discharges from Lake Okeechobee and runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed (Loh et al. 2011). We are very concerned that we will see a similar situation result from the high flows that we are currently receiving.”

Ruane’s letter went on to say: “While we understand the need to protect the communities around Lake Okeechobee from flooding and the current condition of the Herbert Hoover Dike; we are very concerned that very little progress has been made to increase water storage in the Caloosahatchee and Lake Okeechobee watersheds. Increasing water storage and having the ability to move water south into the Everglades during times of emergency is critical to solving the estuary’s high flow problems. It is imperative that the state and federal agencies responsible for managing our area’s water move quickly to increase water storage in the Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee watersheds and eliminate the impediments to moving water south into the Everglades.”

“We are 170 percent above average for rainfall now,” added Evans. “The Everglades is full, storage areas are full. The ground everywhere is saturated. The distributed storage we have works well, but right now they are all full because of too much rain. We can’t move the water south due to lawsuits and it’s not clean enough to begin with. We are just in a predicament where we store all we can.”

The proposed C43 West Reservoir has not been implemented and the purchase of land from agriculture interests for future water storage has not gone forward.

“We need to have a good discussion about policy changes at the state and federal level and move forward with the C43 reservoir funding,” added Evans. “There is a good plan in place, we just need to get it implemented and funded. It’s a 15-year plan, but at the pace we are going it is more likely a 50-year plan.”

Ruane is willing and actively seeking meetings with elected officials at the state and federal level to encourage funding.

“Governor (Rick) Scott is focused on jobs,” said Ruane. “The environment is our economy. We’ve done a great job in the past at pivoting and I suggest we as a council pivot to a business point of view. We have to turn to the realtors, Horizon Council and other businesses. Our property values are affected by the water and the fishing industry is huge.”

Ruane made a motion to hire a firm to help Sanibel and Evans work in conjunction with Lee County officials, assign Evans to work water quality issues full time for 30-60 days, hire a temporary person to assist the shorthanded Natural Resources Department function without Evans and set aside an initial $50,000 taken from the city’s environmental reserves fund to make it all happen. The motion passed by a 5-0 vote.