homepage logo

‘Perfect storm’: Stormy reaction to Lake O discharges

By Staff | Feb 5, 2016

Sanibel officials say a “perfect storm” of unfortunate circumstances is being felt on local beaches.

First it started with a series of strong storms a couple of weeks ago, which dumped abnormally large amounts of water on Sanibel, causing some flooding and a major wash up of marine life on the shores of the island’s beaches.

Then came a red tide event which washed up dead fish, mostly mullet, to add to the heaps of rotting mollusks and crabs, which emitted an unsavory smell down the coast of Sanibel.

A second bad result of the heavy rains caused by a stronger El Nino weather system was the filling of Lake Okeechobee and the urgency from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to unleash its muddy and murky waters into the Caloosahatchee River, as well as watershed runoff from surrounding areas which led directly to the beaches of Sanibel.

The threat of damage to the levies after Lake Okeechobee reached over 16-feet high, forced the release into the Calooshatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. The Calooshatchee sustained most of the drainage, since it is the larger of the two.

“It was a ‘perfect storm,'” said Lee County Hotel Association president and general manager of the Inns of Sanibel John Lai. “The rains didn’t help, the red tide didn’t help and the discharge from the Caloosahatchee River didn’t help. The timing could not have been any worse, either, with this being the peak season and when the guests are paying the highest rate all year and market-wide, hotels are 90-percent occupancy.”

The latest situation of the brown, murky waters invading the Sanibel beaches has been the most noticed by beach goers and residents alike. Usually during the peak season months, the water is pristine, clean and blue.

Not so the last week, as the Gulf of Mexico is not a desirable place to be in with the look of a mud pit.

“The last week, the water has gotten a bad, dark color,” said Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation research scientist Dr. Rick Bartleson. “The dark color of the water is due to organic molecules which plants produce, and in the runoff, there is bark and soil decomposition particles in it. A lot of the dark water is from watershed runoff, which comes from terrestrial areas of vegetation and that of leaves which are decomposing.”

City of Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane also added in a released statement about the brown water, that not all fault should be laid on the releases from Lake Okeechobee.

Mayor Ruane also called for immediate implementation of a three-point action plan and asked the support of surrounding Mayors in the cities of Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Estero, Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach.

The three points include: Maximizing storage on all private lands currently under contract with the SFWMD; maximize potential storage on public lands within Lee County; call on the Army Corps of Engineers and the SFWMD to exercise their operational flexibility to hold more water in the Lake.

“Despite the initiation of increased Lake Okeechobee regulatory releases over the last four days, approximately 70-percent of the current water flow is runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed,” Ruane said. “While championing the need to move water from Lake Okeechobee to the south, the City of Sanibel has consistently recognized our need for water storage within the Caloosahatchee watershed.”

The recent red tide event which hit Sanibel also cannot be blamed on the Lake Okeechobee water releases, since the algae bloom which produces the red poison is made out in the Gulf of Mexico and not in the fresh water areas of the Caloosahatchee watershed.

But the events have compounded on one another, producing a less-than-desirable beach experience for those guests who are staying on the island and who are smelling the direct results of the last couple of weeks.

“This could have a lasting effect,” Lai said. “The timing is so unfortunate, because we are coming off a fantastic year, not just in terms of revenues and occupancy, but as reputation as well. The guests who are here now, may hesitate to come back after seeing the water quality these last couple of weeks.”

But the discharges of fresh water from the Caloosahatchee River into the Gulf is having its own damaging effects on the environment.

Freshwater is being recorded miles out into the Gulf and reports of freshwater fish being caught in normally saltwater areas are being made.

“The release of freshwater into the Gulf is having some effect,” said Sanibel fishing guide and charter owner Captain David Andrews. “It is relocating fish. I’ve been out fishing with some clients and the water is coming in black, it’s so stained it’s black. The water does stink and it irritated our throats when we were out (fishing).

“There isn’t any saltwater at all at the mouth of the river. I haven’t seen any fish kill, yet. But what will happen is the fish living near the mouth of the river will be driven into Pine Island Sound and out into the Gulf.”

Bartleson added when the salinity of the water drops below a measured rating of five, oysters and shoal grasses are effected negatively. Last week, the salinity in parts of the estuary was zero.

The recent overflows of water in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee watershed has put the spotlight on the issue of water storage.

After the heavy rains, which dumped over a record foot of water in the Fort Myers area alone, the current water storage areas in the watershed are nearing capacity.

The Nicodemus Slough is at 90-percent capacity, with pumping curtailed due to permit conditions. Boma is 90-percent to capacity, with pumping temporarily halted due to operational constraints.

Mirror Lakes is half to capacity, with pumping ongoing, while Barron Water Control District is holding additional water within their water management system.

These numbers are as of Feb. 2.

In a memo sent to Mayor Ruane from Phil Flood, the Intergovernmental Representative of the Lower West Coast of the South Florida Water Management District, it states high water capacities is still a threat in the watershed.

“The watershed continues to receive large volumes of runoff from the basin with still more to come in the form of sheetflow coming from Charlotte County. The overwhelming majority of Estuary inflow this past week (of Feb. 1-6) is runoff which accounted for an estimated 88-percent of the total. Absent additional rainfall, the basin runoff should begin to start tapering off later in the week.”

Bartleson couldn’t estimate how long it will take for the brown water to clear, but if it’s ongoing, the sea grasses will start being effected.

“If the sun is being blocked out, photosynthesis will be effected,” Bartleson said. “The grasses in shallow water will be able to survive with light coming through in low tides. In the estuary, light needs to go down at least two meters and currently, sea grasses are getting light in less than one meter. The plants deeper than one meter are not getting any light.

“In the river itself, light is only getting down half a meter.”

But the chemicals and nutrients which are being passed into the Gulf by the Caloosahatchee River has potential to exasperate the blooming of red tide.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there has been 1 million cells per liter in areas of Lee County and around Sanibel, which is more than enough to kill marine life.

The SCCF had readings of 1.5 million cells per liter in the Sanibel area.

The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife on Sanibel, has reported 57 red tide patients since Jan. 1, with the week of Jan. 27-Feb. 3, receiving 10 patients.

Patients have included Brown pelicans, double-crested Cormorants, royal terns, anhingas, great white egrets, laughing gulls and the common loon.

The water released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Lake Okeechobee and watershed runoff has potential to to feed the red tide with the nutrients flowing into the Caloosahatchee River.

If more rain and runoff is in the future, the murky water maybe a lingering effect.

“If and when watershed flow decreases, it is likely that we will continue to receive maximum Lake (Okeechobee) discharges (6,500 cfs) for the foreseeable future,” Ruane said. “Average monthly flow greater than 6,500 cfs measured at S-79 (Franklin Lock and Dam), whether from Lake releases or watershed runoff, will result in mortality of marine organisms and seagrasses in Pine Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.

“With above-average rainfall conditions expected for another three months, it is imperative that we explore all options to implement and maximize storage on all private lands including those currently under contract with the SFWMD for the dispersed water management program and utilize emergency storage on all public lands within the Kissimmee, Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee basins.”

With the potential risk of marine life at risk due to the ongoing wet season during what should be the dry season and the unsavory soupy brown water surrounding Sanibel, the effects maybe felt short and longterm environmentally and economically.

“This is a tough position to be in,” Lai said. “We all need to get on the same page and figure out how do we get behind fixing this. Whether it’s building more reservoirs or buying land for water storage, we need to make it a priority to get this thing fixed.

“We are seeing action being taken and it took decades to get where we are now and it will take decades to fix it. But that doesn’t soften the blow now.”