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Environmentalists to discuss Lake O releases

By Staff | Aug 22, 2013

Local environmentalists will weigh in on water quality issues Monday when an expert-studded panel discussion on the subject convenes on Captiva.

“Coastal Estuaries in Peril,” will be the topic of the session to be held from 5:30 p.m. -7:30 p.m. Aug. 26 at Tween’ Waters Inn on Captiva Island.

Panelists will include Ray Judah, former Lee County commissioner and coordinator for the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition; Jennifer Hecker, Natural Resource Policy manager with Conservancy of Southwest Florida; Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resource Policy director at the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation; and Greg F. Rawl, vice-chairman of the Southwest Watershed Council.

It will be the third such discussion in less than a week, following a special meeting held Wednesday by the Sanibel City Council and a state-wide session held Thursday in Stuart and attended by numerous local officials.

At issue is the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to release water from Lake Okeechobee’s failing Herbert Hoover Dike System this summer, which has resulted in polluted water entering the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans discussed the freshwater releases at the special meeting of the Sanibel City Council.

“Lake O is at 15.7 feet today,” Evans said. “This time last year it was 12.5 feet. We’ve had 140 to 170 percent above normal rainfall this summer, so all of the ground, all of the water storage lands are saturated. The only thing to do now is to release water south to the Everglades, which right now is most important.”

Evans said the water quality is such right now that it impacts oysters and seagrasses. The low salinity due to the freshwater releases is in the lethal range.

“Oysters are dying and the seagrasses are washing up on the beaches,” said Evans. “The dark water plume reduces sunlight to the seagrasses and they die off.”

Lake O was designed to hold much more water than the current 15.7-foot level, but because the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake constructed more than 60 years ago is porous and in danger of failing, water levels are managed at a much lower level. The dike is being reinforced, but it is a long, slow process that has many more years to go before completion.

“There are human health concerns right now,” said Evans. “Although there are no warnings on the west coast, there are advisories and beach closures in effect in the St. Lucie area. Part of the reason we don’t have closures here yet is the water travels more than 80 miles to get here, but much shorter in the St. Lucie River estuary.”

Gov. Rick Scott toured the S-80 control structure in Martin County on Thursday and announced that the Army Corp would reduce the flow from Lake Okeechobee by 33 percent, and by the end of the week by up to 57 percent.

Scott also announced a $40 million commitment to the completion of the C-44 Storm Water Treatment Area project.

“Yesterday, I expressed my concern to Col. Dodd about how families in South Florida were being impacted by the Corps’ release of water from Lake Okeechobee into regional estuaries. Now the Corps has determined it can significantly reduce these flows without compromising the Lake Okeechobee Dike system,” said Scott in a prepared statement.

“While today is a good step forward, there’s much more to be done. Any amount of water from the lake that’s dumped into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers impacts families in the area. With more than $2.5 billion already invested, Florida families will continue to do their part in restoring area waterways, but we need the federal government to step up and fulfill their obligations.”

In Scotts earlier letter to the Army Corps, he stated that the water quality crisis could have been prevented if adequate federal funding had been used to maintain the dike system. The current system is more than 60 years old and the federal government is responsible for its upkeep, he said.

He asked that the federal government take steps to enhance the dike system, fulfill cost-match obligations by investing $1.6 billion in South Florida environmental projects, and provide flexibility to the state to pursue critical projects.

Residents of Sanibel Island are particularly concerned about the water quality because it is such an integral part of its economic well-being. Hundreds of protestors are expected to gather near the Sanibel mid-span bridge this weekend for the Save Our Bay rally. The Sierra Club and a number of other environmental organizations are attending the rally on Saturday at 8 a.m.

Jonathan Tongyai, president of the Sanibel-Captiva Kiwanis Club, said the water quality is the worst he’s ever seen since moving to the island in 1972. He organized the rally to grab the attention of state and federal politicians and demand they find a solution to the problem.

“Everywhere I go people are talking about it and they’re upset about it. The only way we’re going to get the attention of the politicians is to make sure they know their voters are angry,” he said.