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Solving the water quality problem

By Staff | Jul 14, 2016

From a visual perspective, the water clarity in Lee County has diminished greatly compared to last month.

City of Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans said one of the reasons the water has turned to a dark, dingy color is because of the flows from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee watershed put large volumes of dirty water in the San Carlos Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Evans also said that the low amount of salinity in the waters is wreaking havoc on organisms in the water.

“The estuary organisms like oysters, seagrasses, fin fish and shellfish can’t live in certain salinities so they move away. The shellfish, like oysters, can’t move so they die. We’re seeing major ecological impacts within the estuary,” Evans said.

Lately, Evans has seen a lot of seagrass washing up on the beaches. This poses an issue because the seagrasses provide structure and shelter for important fish.

“People come from all over the world to our coastal waters to fish, so when that structure’s gone, the fish that come here to reproduce in those areas are gone as well. That’s a big concern for us,” he said.

The other setback with these large volume water releases is the amount of nutrients that are now polluting the water.

“The nutrients come in and the energy isn’t lost in the system, it has to be taken up by something and often times, those nutrients are taken up by algae,” Evans said.

Evans explained that our watershed is connected to Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee Basin. That water is discharged to the east and west coast.

“When we receive these huge volume releases, we’re not only getting the fresh water, we’re also getting the nutrients that run off that huge watershed. That’s one of the major impacts to our estuary and our beaches,” he said.

Evans said he has spotted green algae blooms, similar to the ones that have occurred in Martin County, near the Franklin Lock and Downtown Fort Myers. The blooms haven’t invaded local offshore waters just yet and they may not since Lee County is nearly 70 miles away from Lake Okeechobee. Martin County is experiencing a more devastating impact because they are closer to the lake.

Although the Lee County Health Department has deemed the waters as safe to swim in, Evans advises residents and visitors to use caution.

“People do need to use common sense when in the water with open wounds or a compromised immune system. If you see dark water along the beaches, I’d probably avoid it,” he said.

So, what is the solution to this problem? Evans along with the City Council of Sanibel, developed a document called “Caloosahatchee Watershed Regional Water Management White Papers.” The papers have been endorsed by the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, the Snook and Gamefish Foundation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society.

The papers address short and long-term solutions for the storage and treatment of discharges coming from Lake Okeechobee, the Kissimmee Basin and Caloosahatchee watersheds.

“Anything that is going to reduce discharges from the lake is going to help the St. Lucie River, Evans said. “We’ve been trying to get the state and federal agencies to implement these projects faster but they only have so much money.”

Dan Bongino, a Republican candidate who is running for Florida’s 19th Congressional District owns a house in Martin County so he has witnessed the effects of the discharges from both sides.

“The advantage of seeing it from both coasts, is that I get to see what happens on the Gulf, the Caloosahatchee and the lagoon. It’s clear to any reasonable person observing this, that this isn’t just an environmental catastrophe here, this a government-created environmental catastrophe. It’s an economic catastrophe as well,” Bongino said. “What’s really depressing is that everyone seems to be full of excuses as to why we can’t fix it.”

Bongino sees the economic impact it’s created already is just as bad as it is in Martin County.

“The economic impact on both coasts and the environmental impact is traumatic. It’s not what just you can see, the blue-green algae is visually more powerful because you can see it, but we have to remember there’s multiple problems here. It’s salt water intrusion, fish kill, fertilizer, back pumping, land purchasing. It just isn’t one thing,” he said.

Francis Rooney, another Republican candidate who is running for Florida’s 19th Congressional District, said that we need to make Lake Okeechobee a national infrastructure project.

“When we hear the feds talk about national infrastructure projects like the Denver Airport or the new Atlanta International Terminal, or the Big Dig in Boston, I want to know why aren’t we up there with our Everglades, which is a national treasure,” Rooney said.

Rooney said that if we start working on cleaning up the lake soon, the damage could be reversed.

“Nature has its own very restorative balance. Many waterways, estuaries, bays and lakes become cleaned up when the incoming pollution is abated,” he said.

On June 29, Gov. Rick Scott added Lee County and Palm Beach Counties to the state of emergency declaration for algae blooms in the waterways. Martin and St. Lucie counties were added the day before.

“It’s unfortunate, but to solve these problems, we need massive amounts of storage north, south, east and west of the lake but, we need to focus on moving more water south. It’s been estimated that we need anywhere from 1-1.4 million acre feet of storage combined north and south of the lake, and then we need 400,000 acre feet west and 200 acre feet east,” Evans said.

The Central Everglades Planning Project is one of the projects Evans has been advocating. The project calls for more water to be moved south. Another project they’re trying to speed up is the Integrated Delivery Schedule. In light of the declaration Scott issued in June, Evans would like to start the project this year or no later 2017.

“The IDS contains a number of projects that are underway or are in the planning process and, when constructed, will provide relief to the estuaries. There is one project in particular on the IDS that would provide meaningful relief to the estuaries, but it is not scheduled to begin the planning process until 2020. That project is referred to as ‘EAA Storage & ASR/Decomp Ph2’ on the IDS. This project would result in additional water storage and treatment south of Lake Okeechobee within the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). This project combined with the other projects currently underway would provide additional storage, treatment and conveyance south of Lake Okeechobee,” said Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane in a prepared statement.

Average flows for the week of July 3 was 6,500 cubic feet per second. The average was 2,800 cubic feet per second before the flows started back up in January. Since November 2015 until June 26, 2016, Lee County has received 1.6 million acre feet of water from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee watershed. We have only sent 450,000 cubic feet of water south.

Evans added that this was not an overnight occurrence. The water issues have gone on for decades.

“The system has been changed since the late 1880s, and it was really designed as a system to move water off the landscape for flood control purposes, agriculture and for development along the east coast. Now, we have a water management system that moves water out of the lake extremely quickly. Water comes into the lake six times faster than we can move it out, and now, it’s having a devastating impact on the east and west coast,” he said.

Chauncey Goss could not be reached for comment.