SCCF team takes SFWMD members on tour of estuary
On Oct. 22, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Lab Director Dr. Eric Milbrandt and Environmental Policy Director James Evans took members of the South Florida Water Management District out on the Caloosahatchee estuary to see first-hand the impacts of high volumes of freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
The district members included Governing Board Chairman Chauncey Goss, Director of Ecosystem Restoration and Capital Projects Jennifer Reynolds and Communications Director Sean Cooley.
SCCF’s scientists explained the impacts that the freshwater releases are having on the ecology of the estuary and how the high-level flows can lower salinity levels and impact the health of seagrasses and oysters.
The group discussed the current limitations of the water management system and the need for additional storage, treatment and conveyance south into the Everglades and Florida Bay to reduce damaging flows to the estuaries.The freshwater plume from the Caloosahatchee River currently stretches six miles offshore.
In addition to discussing the current ecological conditions, the group also talked about the value of SCCF’s oyster and seagrass restoration efforts under way and explored opportunities for future restoration projects to enhance habitat and improve water quality.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is continuing to release water to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers as Lake Okeechobee is still slowly rising. An average flow of 4,000 cubic feet per second is being released to the Caloosahatchee, and an average of 1,800 cubic feet per second will be sent to the St. Lucie.
The releases are being conducted to lower lake levels, which the Army Corps tries to maintain between 12 feet and 15 feet for flood protection and water supply to farms and urban areas, as well as water for natural systems like the Caloosahatchee and Everglades.
Lake levels were at 16.37 feet above sea level on Oct. 27, which is higher than the Army Corps wants to see at this time of year. Water is still coming into the lake at a faster rate than it is being discharged, and it will likely be a couple of weeks before the lake finally tapers off and begins to fall.
The Army Corps held off on releases the majority of the wet season, sparing the estuaries from potential additional harm from lake discharges.
Prior to the releases that began on Oct. 14, the Caloosahatchee was already experiencing harmful flows from the watershed. Additional lake flows will only cause more damage to the ecology of the estuary, lowering salinity levels, shading sea grass beds and adding nutrients that can feed harmful algal blooms.
Weather patterns still have South Florida in the rainy season, and the tropics are still active.
The shift between the two seasons does not come on a particular date but, rather is based on the dominant weather pattern at the time. A La Niña pattern is forecast to strengthen this winter and spring, which could result in dryer than average conditions in south Florida.
After analyzing lake levels over the next several days, the Army Corps was scheduled to make another announcement about releases on Oct. 30.