Army Corps provides update on Lake Okeechobee projects
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 on March 26 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, with 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. Last May, 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 Okeechobee were loaded with thick, blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which then flowed into the Caloosahatchee and canals in the Cape, 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 Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach. 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 did not come here.
“I remember being out on the Causeway one day and seeing no boats or birds or anything. Last year really awakened us,” Goss, who at the time was a Sanibel council member, said. “There is more of a premium now on clean water than in 1972 (when the SFWMD) was created.”
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.
Reynolds said there are more than 60 projects regarding Lake Okeechobee 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.
Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello, who had invited the Army Corps to the city, 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,” he 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,” he said.