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Lake O causing murky discharge into the Gulf

By Staff | Feb 17, 2016

The gulf waves right now are undeniably brownish in color at Lee County’s prized beaches on Sanibel and Estero islands.

The alarming situation sent the county’s six mayors into action Wednesday, as they held an emergency meeting of the minds at the Bonita Springs City Hall in attempt to thwart – or at least understand – the ongoing discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

“The problem is massive,” said Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, whose island was overwhelmed by the dirty water the last weekend of January on the heels of a record amount of rain, at around 14 inches, for the month. “We are looking at 570 percent more rain than average in what is supposed to be our dry period. Usually, I’m begging for rain this time of year for our canals and estuaries.

“As for Lake Okeechobee, normally it would be 3 feet lower right now.”

The mayors formulated an action plan that called for explanations regarding three points:

n Why does back-pumping continue? Those who farm sugar in the Lake Okeechobee area back-pump water into canals, which leads to the lake, in order to keep their fields prime for growing. With lake levels too high, much of the overload is released into the Caloosahatchee River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico between Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel.

The mayors are demanding that the South Florida Water Management District acknowledge whether or not all other options are exhausted in lieu of back-pumping.

“What is their rationale?” Ruane asked.

n Where can more water storage be found? Ruane said Lake Okeechobee is responsible for only about 20 percent of the discharge, the balance of it coming from watershed storage “in our own backyard.”

The mayors will be researching whether or not existing public land can be used for additional water storage, or if purchase of suitable private land could be another approach.

Currently, a reservoir (known as a C-43) is being constructed south of the river near Ortona, with an estimated 2020 completion date. It will hold 170,000 acre-foot of water, but Rae Ann Wessel of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation told the mayors a storage amount of 450,000 acre-foot is needed to provide adequate coverage.

n Is life truly that risky near the lake? The Army Corps of Engineers has the final say as to how much water is released from the lake, and it cites “flood protection” for area residents as a motivator.

Ruane said a risk assessment provided by the corps is needed.

“We recognize the need for protection of life near ‘Lake O’ and were not looking to put people at risk,” he said, “But people don’t just want to hear the words ‘flood protection.’ Are we talking the water potentially being ankle deep or over their heads?”

Ruane said about $500 million in improvements had already been dedicated to the lake’s dike, with little benefit.

“Can the lake actually hold more?” he asked.

The mayors also renewed their support of a proposed plan to build an infrastructure to send Lake Okeechobee water south into the Florida Everglades – an area often stricken with drought, Wessel said.

“That would solve the biggest chunk of this problem,” she said.

Ruane said as much as $20 billion is needed to solve the discharge problem, but he quickly pointed to the fact that Lee County brings in about $3 billion per year and boasts property values in excess of $150 billion.

“We need to quantify our economic impact from this,” he said. “There’s the marine life and the businesses associated with that, and then there’s tourism. Our economy is at stake and so is people’s confidence.

“This is a shared adversity. We all feel the pain.”

Regarding the search for existing public land, Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki said she’d begin to explore her area. She also wondered if her city’s 400-plus canals, which act as a natural water-storage system, could take on more volume.

Either way, she said water quality will be added to her weekly agenda as a discussion item.

At Sanibel, where the impact is most glaring, Wessel said the nutrient-rich brown water is not only unsightly but is choking off marine life and exacerbating red-tide conditions.

On Fort Myers Beach, where the brown water has arrived, Mayor Anita Cereceda’s reaction during a beach walk last week was a text to the other mayors simply saying “Help!”

She said it’s time everyone knows exactly what is going on at Lake Okeechobee.

“They need to quantify what they’re doing in very specific terms,” Cereceda said of state and federal officials, hoping to avoid hearing any jargon or government speak. “This needs to be real for people. They know what they’re looking at, and they want to know why.”

Ruane agreed, saying the mayors need to be educating residents of the situation in the coming weeks. He said that will start with greater transparency from those at the source.

“Frame it in a way people understand,” Ruane said. “The public will embrace it much more.”

And he called for a stronger effort on the local level.

“We must continue to focus on this, and not just because it’s an emergency, but rather to find a solution – to not just let it go away, like we have in the past,” Ruane said.