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Cassani: Estuaries have declined rapidly over the years

By Staff | Apr 6, 2016

An exploding population rate in Southwest Florida, combined with poor water management, has in essence, deteriorated the fragile estuaries this region depends on for its fishing industry, boating and tourism.

That message was the focal point of the Southwest Florida Watershed Council President and FGCU professor John Cassani, who was the featured speaker at the annual Committee of the Islands board meeting Wednesday, March 20, inside the Sanibel Community House.

“There’s a lot at stake, such as the fisheries, boating and tourism,” Cassani said.

One important feature which is key to the estuaries and the wildlife which inhabit is the declining tape grass growth.

“Back in 1979, there were 600 to 1,000 acres of tape grass in the estuaries, it was just lush of it off shore,” Cassani said. “We starting losing the tape grass towards the end of 1999 and it’s not regrowing.”

One major reason tape grass is not regrowing is because of the algae which can coat the grass and stifle growth. The suspended solids and tannins also darken the water to the extent sunlight cannot penetrate the water and start the process of photosynthesis.

The level of salinity is also another factor in the growth of tape grass. Sea grasses normally prefer fresh water, but is salt water tolerant. When there is less flow from Lake Okeechobee during the dry season, salt water is heavier, thus affecting the growth rate of sea grasses.

It’s a delicate balance and the area is not receiving it.

The ultimate goal will be to capture the water in storage lands during the wet season and releasing it to needy areas during the dry season.

That’s the goal of the current project of the Everglades Restoration Program, which was projected to start in 2007 and be completed in 2010 at the C-43 reservoir.

That didn’t happen.

Cassani said the federal government has not been a help over the years, which in turn, has allowed water quality to regress to where it’s now.

Now, the C-43 reservoir projected finish date is 2026, but will still only provide 38 percent of what is actually needed. If and when the project is finished, it will be the 10th to 12th largest body of water in Florida.

The state legislature passed a current water bill which contains some noteworthy provisions, but also has plenty of loopholes to hinder regulation of runoff water by big industry and agriculture.

With the discharges from Lake Okeechobee and the runoff from the Caloosahatchee River containing nutrient-rich laden water, that will only feed the algae in the Gulf which produces red tide.

There have been studies showing a relation between red tide and neuro diseases in humans, such as Alzheimers, if they are exposed to the neurotoxins of the algae, such as eating infected fish.

“There have been some studies suggesting the neurotoxins from red tide are leading to brain tangles in animals, and that is not good,” Cassani said.

Regulatory compliance is one solution which can be acted upon, but it needs to be politically driven, not science driven.

“We can be spending money on massive infrastructure projects, but we also need to be requiring compliance,” Cassani said. “There is a compliance (program for the Caloosahatchee River) in which the current rate of reducing nitrogen in the Caloosahatchee is at 73 pounds a year.

“They will have reduce at least 94,000 pounds a year to meet that compliance. That will take a 1,000 years to meet that compliance at this rate.”

Preparing for the future is also a must do and that means having a plan for the escalating population rate, which is estimated at 1,000 people a day moving to Florida and the overdevelopment of the area.

Climate change is also an issue we can no longer kick the can down the street, Cassani said.

Cassani credited the City of Sanibel for addressing these environmental issues and the willingness of its citizens to become involved.

“We need to prepare for the explosive development which is coming, and we need to plan for it,” Cassani said. “To do that, we need political change and civil engagement. If there isn’t any political will, there never will be enough science to justify policy change.”