Guest Commentary: Setting the record straight on Caloosahatchee flows
In the March 16, 2016 News-Press, U.S. Sugar paid for an ad titled “It’s Time to Set the Record Straight on the Lake Okeechobee Discharges”. In that ad, they quoted my Feb. 5, 2016 editorial where I referenced the average freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee during the first week in February. At that time, 70 percent of the flows were in fact coming from watershed runoff and weekly average flows to the Caloosahatchee measured at the Franklin Lock (S-79) exceeded 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). These flows were more than three and half times the high-flow ecological harm threshold established by water managers for the Caloosahatchee estuary. Fortunately, over the past month conditions have changed and rainfall within the Caloosahatchee basin has dissipated along with the watershed runoff. This has allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to increase releases directly from Lake Okeechobee. At the current time, freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee make up approximately 89 percent of the total flow at the Franklin Lock and watershed runoff is contributing only 11 percent. Flows at the Franklin Lock (Lake discharges plus watershed runoff) during the past week averaged 4,414 cfs and remain well above the ecological harm threshold established for the estuary. To date in 2016, Lake Okeechobee discharges have made up 63 percent of the total flows to the Caloosahatchee estuary.
During an average year, approximately 60 percent of the freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee come from the watershed between the Moore Haven Lock (S-77) and the Franklin Lock. While this area is often referred to as the “local basin,” the majority of the lands within the eastern and western Caloosahatchee sub-watersheds are actually located outside of Lee County. The Caloosahatchee watershed is relatively large and includes more than 1,090,381 acres (SFWMD 2015 South Florida Environmental Report). Agricultural lands make up approximately 34.6 percent of the total landuse within the Caloosahatchee watershed, while urban lands make up approximately 18.5 percent (SFWMD 2015 South Florida Environmental Report). So when we talk about “watershed runoff” or “local basin runoff,” it is important that our citizens understand that the majority of the water we receive within the Caloosahatchee estuary comes from east of the Franklin Lock and that the landuse within the eastern and western Caloosahatchee sub-watersheds is predominately agricultural lands.
The Mayors of Lee County recognize that runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed contributes a significant volume of freshwater to the estuary. Implementing the watershed storage projects outlined in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program is critical to restoring freshwater flows to our estuary. It is important to acknowledge that while watershed storage is an important component, it is only part of the solution and alone will not eliminate the damaging high-flow discharges to the Caloosahatchee. The other part of the solution is completing all of the water storage projects identified in CERP (north, south, east and west of the Lake), cleaning and conveying that water south into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay where it is desperately needed.
– Kevin Ruane is the mayor of Sanibel