homepage logo

Mayor calls for help to stop water releases

By Staff | Feb 17, 2016

An aerial shot of the brown discharge from the Caloosahatchee invading the barrier islands around Sanibel. Photo by Curtis Brown

Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane issued this call to action: “We call on every person who understands that our water quality is the engine that drives the southwest Florida economy to contact the Army Corp of Engineers with this critical message: ‘Immediately stop the massive releases and immediately stop the back pumping into Lake O.’.”

The contact for the Corp of Engineers is:

Lt. Colonel Jennifer A. Reynolds

Deputy District Commander for South Florida

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District

South Florida Restoration Program Office

1400 Centrepark Boulevard

West Palm Beach, FL 33401-7402



Phone: 561-472-8891

Water Quality Facts

and Q&A From VCB

(water quality facts and

Q&As: Updated 2/5/16):

“The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB) has been monitoring the recent releases from Lake Okeechobee. We, along with Lee County Natural Resources, our municipal partners and environmental groups in the area, are watching this issue very closely.??The following information is from Lee County Natural Resources. It explains the current status of our waterways and addresses any water color concerns your guests may have.”? ?

What’s happening?

An abnormally wet January caused flooding in much of South Florida. It also increased Lake Okeechobee levels to the point that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that flood control releases must be made to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

The additional water from the lake combined with runoff from Lee, Hendry and Glades counties drastically increases the amount of fresh water in the Caloosahatchee estuary leading to the Gulf of Mexico and the beaches of Lee County.

  • What it looks like
  • The additional fresh water is often darker in color than Gulf water, and a distinct line where the fresh water meets the salt water is generally seen where the Caloosahatchee meets the Gulf.
  • The darkness of the fresh water is caused by tannins in the water. Tannins are natural organic matter and while these tannins are common in fresh water systems and are harmless, the obvious contrast in color creates an image unlike those normally seen on area beaches.

About algae blooms

  • The additional fresh water in the system includes nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. While these nutrients are essential to life, when they are in excess they can “feed” algae, which can lead to harmful algae blooms that can cause low oxygen levels in local water and can lead to fish kills.
  • Red tide is not caused by the fresh water; but the additional nutrients can also “feed” the bloom, which can exacerbate its effects.

What’s likely next?

  • Because of the strong El Nio conditions with additional rain forecast and the continued rise of Lake Okeechobee, the releases from the lake will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Lee County staff is in daily contact with the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District regarding the releases. They continue to look for options that could relieve some of the pressure put on the Caloosahatchee estuary.

Visitor Q&A

What causes the dark color water?

Water runoff from the river watershed and freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee is causing the color. This freshwater contains tannins from plants and other organic material that give the water a coffee-like appearance.

Why has this water been released?

Unusually heavy rainfall within the Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee watersheds recently has resulted in large volumes of freshwater being discharged into the river and estuary. Under normal circumstances, with typical rainfall amounts, this does not occur along our beaches.

Is it safe to swim?

Yes, according to the Lee County Health Department, samples of beach water quality are taken weekly.

How long will it last?

That depends on the current and projected weather conditions, as well as conditions in the tributaries that flow into Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River, and the availability of additional water storage. Because of the higher than normal rainfall through the beginning of the rainy season system-wide, water releases from Lake Okeechobee will likely continue.

If the lake releases are stopped, conditions could return to normal in a relatively short period of time.

Governor Scott request

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for immediate action

Last week, Governor Scott made a direct request to the Army for Civil Works Engineers for immediate action of the discharging of Lake Okeechobee.

The letter Governor Scott wrote to Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy stated the request involve “immediate action to relieve the flooding of the Everglades Water Conservation AReas and the releases of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Esturies.”

The request included to raise the level of the L-29 canal to 8.5 feet so that substantial volumes of water can be moved from Water Conservation Area 3 to the Everglades National Park through the Shark River Slough.

Mayor Ruane applauded the action.

“The solutions we are pursuing require action by all levels of government, local, state and Federal. The engagement by Governor Scott is a positive step we appreciate.”