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Sanibel rallies ‘troops’ on water releases

By Staff | Jun 11, 2018

TIFFANY REPECKI Holly Milbrandt, environmental biologist for the city's Natural Resources Department, provides the Sanibel City Council with a water quality update during its meeting on June 5.

The city of Sanibel is calling for an immediate halt to the Lake Okeechobee releases down the Caloosahatchee River and is asking others to join its side in the fight.

At its June 5 meeting, the Sanibel City Council unanimously supported a plan to reach out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District after receiving a water quality update from city staff. Days later, the city released a call to action for residents, advocates and others.

“It’s two-part. It’s the watershed and it’s the releases,” Mayor Kevin Ruane said at the meeting.

“Right now, we can’t take any more water. This has to stop and it has to stop now,” he continued. “This is a disaster and we’re just heading into (wet) season. We will have six months of disaster.”

On June 1, the Corps started releasing water from the lake as part of its effort to manage rising water levels. The target flow for the Caloosahatchee Estuary is 4,000 cubic feet per second as measured at the Moore Haven Lock; the target for the St. Lucie Estuary is 1,800 cfs as measured at the St. Lucie Lock.

Add in the watershed runoff, however, and the actual flows are averaging over 8,000 cfs.

“We have, essentially, had a major change than what we have been reporting over the last several months,” Holly Milbrandt, environmental biologist for the city’s Natural Resources Department, said.

She explained to the council that since January, west coast stakeholders and lake scientists have been requesting additional water to be released to improve ecological conditions within the lake and to supplement the Caloosahatchee Minimum Flow and Level. It did not occur, which resulted in the lake exceeding the MFL salinity criteria in Fort Myers 89 days.

Rains in May, including from Subtropical Storm Alberto, rose the lake more than one foot. Milbrandt added that there is a 30 percent to 40 percent chance for above-level rainfall in the coming months.

“It is important to note that no water is currently being sent south to the Everglades,” she said.

In the call to action from the city, it is asking for the Corps and district to:

– Immediately stop all regulatory releases from Lake Okeechobee to the river until flows at the Franklin Lock drop below 3,000 cubic feet per second.

– Immediately send the water south, instead of east and west.

– Immediately implement solutions to address the inequity of the adaptive protocols for the lake and the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule being used.

– Immediately deploy flow monitoring stations within the Caloosahatchee watershed tributaries between the Franklin Lock and the Moore Haven Lock.

In addition, the city noted that the L-8 canal back-flowed about 30,000 acre-feet of water into the lake and the S-310 back-flowed approximately 4,200 acre-feet between the dates of May 23 and June 5. It is pushing for answers on why the L-8 Flow Equalization Basin is not providing the relief to eliminate the need for back-flowing and what the future strategy is for reducing or eliminating back-flow for S-310.

A letter outlining the city’s stance has been sent to the Corps and district, as well as the governor.

“The south is going to have to take water,” Ruane said at the meeting.

“Somebody’s going to have to put pressure on this group,” he added. “We can certainly put enough pressure on them to do things differently we’ll take 3,000 cfs or we won’t take any water.”

According to city staffers, approximately 50 percent of the freshwater flow being received in the Caloosahatchee estuary at S-79 is coming from the lake. The other half is coming from the watershed between Moore Haven and the Franklin Lock. Due to lack of monitoring, the source is unknown.

“We need to identify why we’re getting the type of water that we’re getting from the watershed,” Ruane said, adding that monitoring stations need to be installed. “We need to identify the source.”

Councilmember Jason Maughan suggested getting voters involved with the election coming up.

“We need to give the citizens, literally, an opportunity to help out in the fight,” he said.

Councilmember Chauncey Goss noted the lack of county involvement on the issue.

“Lee County seems to be nonexistent in this fight,” he said.

Ruane reiterated the seriousness of the situation with the lake’s current level, how it could rise with another small storm, the approach of wet season and the above-average rainfall being predicted.

“It’s too early and we’ve never seen the lake this high,” he said.

“It’s just a disaster waiting to happen,” Ruane added.

Rae Ann Wessel, natural resources policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, explained that the recent freshwater releases means species like seagrasses, oysters and other creatures only had since about November to recover. After Hurricane Irma, freshwater releases came down the Caloosahatchee for months.

In addition, the intercoastal estuary was dealing with another extreme: a freshwater “drought.”?

“In January, we were asking for more water to meet our salinity targets, and (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) didn’t,” she said. “They could have sent us more that would have prevented three months of freshwater shortage.”

The mouth of the river and the intercoastal act as a mixing ground for fresh and salt water. The species living there need a balance of both, thriving in the brackish environment, Wessel explained. But in the past few years, it seems the area has swung from one extreme to another.

She noted that the Caloosahatchee got 78 percent of the releases; the St. Lucie River got 22 percent. While St. Lucie may have had a smaller share of the releases, Martin County has already reported blue-green algae blooms, or cyanobacteria, in its estuary.

Lake Okeechobee itself has a large algal bloom in its waters; so far, the releases from the Caloosahatchee have not brought any algal blooms to the local estuaries, Wessel said.

“We’re seeing chlorophyll, which is the right nutrient mix to make algae, but we’re not seeing a bloom yet,” she said.

But, the water is a cocktail of plenty of other things. Wessel explained that with the rains from recent weeks being the first after a few dry months, the runoff from the watershed brings everything lying on the surface with it: pesticide, fertilizer, oil and dog poop, just to name a few.

“We need to tolerate standing water. New people move here, and they don’t want water sitting in their yard, but this is Florida,” she said. “You can’t pump it away and expect there to be no consequences.”

One good sign Wessel saw was the first rush of “dark” freshwater, predominately near Sanibel’s shores, was still clear. The Caloosahatchee’s water is naturally a dark color, as it is filled with tannins, a natural substance. Dark and murky water is the problem. She said the murky water means there is a presence of dissolved organic matter, which brings the perfect blend of nutrients to bloom algae.