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Army Corps provides update on Lake O projects

By Staff | Mar 27, 2019

It took more than a century of mismanagement and bad decisions to put South Florida in a water quality crisis last summer.

However, with a changing of the guard at the South Florida Water Management District, long-awaited improvements in Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades and ideas to combat algae, the hope is that long-term solutions are finally in the works.

That is what experts said Tuesday at a water quality meeting held in Cape Coral that featured updates provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Among the speakers was Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds with the Army Corps; new South Florida Water Management District Chairman Chauncey Goss; Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resource Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel; Daniel Andrews of Captains for Clean Water and Jeff Pearson, Cape Coral’s director of Public Works.

Reynolds provided a history, saying the problems started when humans decided to change the state’s natural water flow to encourage agriculture and development nearly a century ago. This diverted water from the Everglades and sent it east and west.

At the time, development was more important than the environment and it seemed like a good idea as more than 8 million people came here to live, she said.

But those policies had unintended consequences, which South Florida felt for nearly two years, thanks largely to events beyond its control.

Hurricane Irma in 2017 churned up the water in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee, loading the river with nutrients. In May 2018, Southwest Florida had the wettest month on record, which the land was unable to absorb, since the area also had a very dry spring.

This sequence of events resulted last year in an algal bloom the likes of which has not been seen in recent memory.

The results were catastrophic.

Releases from Lake O were loaded with thick, blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which then flowed into the Caloosahatchee and canals in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers and Pine Island.

Nutrients in the water releases, meanwhile, also “fed” the algae known as red tide, or or Karenia brevis, affecting beaches up and down the coastline, including those on Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. Those local beaches currently have no water quality issues, including any problems related to red tide.

Wessel said the result last summer was the death of 4.4 million marine life, including more than 1,800 sea turtles, 211 manatees and 127 dolphins. Also aerosolized toxins were detected a mile inland, sensations of which are felt at 10,000 cells per liter. In 2018, they were as high as 200 million c/L.

The economy took a hit as well as hotels were empty, charter boats sat at the docks and tourists, who saw the newscasts, may not have stayed home but certainly didn’t come here.

“I remember being out on the Causeway one day and seeing no boats or birds or anything. Last year really awakened us,” said Goss, who at the time was a Sanibel council member. “There is more of a premium now on clean water than in 1972 (when the SFWMD) was created.”

Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello and a coalition of Southwest Florida mayors led by Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, came together and asked the SFWMD, then under a different governing board, to increase the releases during dry season to lower lake levels during rainy season and to protect the estuaries. Their request fell on deaf ears.

When Gov. Ron Desantis was sworn in, he changed the composition of the SFWMD board, appointing Goss, who chose not to run for re-election, and others who seemed more aware of effects lake management policies have on South Florida’s coastal communities.

On the local level, Pearson said Cape Coral went into emergency mode to clean the more than 70 canals impacted, working with AE Com and Lee County to vacuum blue-green algae from waterways, thanks to former Gov. Rick Scott declaring a state of emergency.

The city also found success using a product that “ate” nutrients in the water, effectively starving the algae to death, and a bubble curtain to keep algae out of the canals. The city also reached an agreement with Fort Myers regarding sharing reclaimed water.

Reynolds said there are more than 60 projects regarding Lake O and the Everglades on the docket. The C-43 reservoir is under construction, as is the renovation of the Hoover Dike.

The reaction to the meeting was positive.

“It’s great the community is coming together to talk about this important issue. The Army Corps is redoing the management of Lake Okeechobee and our hope is that environment gets more priority than it’s received in the past,” Andrews said.

“I think everyone has figured out that without tourism and taking care of our environment, we have no Florida to live in,” said Gloria Tate, a resident of Cape Coral since it was founded. “So much information tonight and we’re getting recognized for the issue that effect our health and welfare.”

Coviello, who had invited the Army Corps to Cape Coral, said the meeting was informative with a wide scope on the impact of water quality.

“We’ve come a long way since last summer. I’ve seen more cooperation between the governments and agencies that are trying to attack this issue and fix the problem,” Coviello said. “It takes all of us.”

Coviello said the new release schedule from Lake Okeechobee and other policies have really helped in the short term.

“We know the long-term fixes are for the projects we saw tonight that need to be funded, but in the meantime, we’re taking the actions we can take to alleviate the situation,” Coviello said.