River Remains in Peril
as Drought Continues
As the drought continues into it's fifth year, Florida enters the peak of dry season (April and May) with water levels at Lake Okeechobee about 2 feet below normal, prompting the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) governing board to once again vote to stop releasing needed beneficial releases to the Caloosahatchee River – despite putting no restrictions on lake water use by the agricultural industry. Since a similar decision made by the board last year resulted in destructive toxic algae blooms that occurred when all releases were cut off, this has local officials and environmental leaders up in arms.
"The public policy in regards to water management is not reality and the thresholds need to be corrected,” said Rae Ann Wessel, Director of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Association (SCCA) and a 20-year veteran of the water quality drama that is played out every year between local interests, the agriculture industry, the Army Corps of Engineers and the SFWMD. "Some years ago – when Florida was not suffering from a drought - the state legislature responded to pressure from the agricultural industry and changed the way that water is managed. They made promises of volume without considering the natural impacts. Where is the accountability? This water belongs to all of us, but agriculture gets all it wants and gets to make private profits using public water!”
Water levels are now at what is considered to be a 'beneficial use zone', meaning that the Army Corps of Engineers can override the District's decision and force some water to be released into the Caloosahatchee. Last year, following an outcry over toxic algae blooms that were choking the life out of the river, the Corps made such a decision only to be hammered for it by the District.
We called Lt. Colonel Michael Kinard, Deputy Commander of the South Florida District of the Army Corps of Engineers, and he explained that the Corps rarely intervenes with water management decisions because it is a state issue.
"Generally, we don't override decisions made by the water districts because, at the end of the day, water supply is a state responsibility,” he said. "We did it last year for very specific reasons and took a lashing from the public. It is a very controversial issue. We do have the authority, and we certainly consider water supply in all decisions, but we have no way to regulate it as far as restrictions and consumptive use permits. We try not to get into the water supply business. The state feels very strongly that it's their water and therefore their decision.”
Kinard pointed out that it's not just the Caloosahatchee interests and agriculture making demands when the lake gets low.
"Everyday users of the lake get concerned, environmental groups that watch out for the lake get concerned about animals like the snail kite that nest in the marshes on the west side,” he said. "Mere inches of water make a huge difference. The bottom line is that there are problems with the Herbert Hoover Dam, and we have been trying to involve more people, and to look at conditions three to six months out. Instead of making drastic decisions, make gentle decisions. Of course, this applies mainly to the wet season where there's lots of flexibility. During the last two years there just hasn't been enough rain.”
Wessel, who told us that she plans to attend a meeting of the SFWMD this week to ask them to change their minds, said she still plans to ask the Corps for help, too.
"We've got calls into the Corps and into the leadership of the SFWMD asking for relief,” she said. High salinity levels from lack of freshwater lead to increased levels of toxic cyanobacteria and actually caused the Olga Water Treatment plant in east Lee County to shut down last summer, and signs warning against swimming to be placed all along the river.
Daniel DeLisi, southwest Florida's representative on the District's governing board since May of 2011, was one of only two votes against stopping the releases, and told an environmental group on Sanibel last month that progress toward fixing the problem is being made, it's just agonizingly slow.
"We need to tone down the rhetoric and look for creative solutions," he said. "The construction of the Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir is one step toward a long term goal," said DeLisi. "Our only way out of this mess is to partner with other state groups to come up with imperfect solutions to get on the way to our end goal."
The C-43 Reservoir Project is a 170,000 acre-foot storage project set on 10,000 acres of former farmland in Hendry County west of LaBelle that will store water from Lake O during times when massive water releases occur – preventing the destruction that is caused when high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous are released downstream – and provide a source for freshwater in times of drought. The District has acquired the land, completed construction of reservoir test cells and designed the levee construction. Permits have been issued, but actual construction of the reservoir could take years.
"It's 170,000 acre-foot of storage, but the estuary needs more than 450,000 acre-foot of storage, but we can't buy our way out of this," said DeLisi. "We are now getting a positive dialog and making progress. We need C-43 online."
Meanwhile, Wessel travels to SFWMD headquarters in West Palm Beach on Thursday to ask them to overturn their decision, something that Kinard told us he'd like to see happen, too.
"I'll be at that meeting,” he said. "There is a fair amount of flexibility in the new regulation schedules, unfortunately there hasn't been enough water to show that. Ideally, I'd love to be sitting on the lake with 15 feet of water on November 1st. Even though there's 30 more days of hurricane season, it would be an acceptable risk to keep that water in the lake to use during the dry season - then all arguments over how much the Caloosahatchee gets or doesn't get would be moot.”
Like DeLisi, Kinard says it ultimately comes down to the need for a reservoir such as C-43.
"While I hope that a compromise can be reached, what we really need is a reservoir,” he said. "And this is something that everyone can help with by talking to their commissioners, their senators, their representatives. We need these projects approved so we can work towards appropriating the funding. It's vital to get that message out to our elected officials.”
April 11, 2012-The Lee County Health Department is advising the public to be cautious before exposing themselves, pets or livestock to the brackish and fresh water of the Caloosahatchee River and its tributaries due to sporadic but potentially harmful algal blooms.
It is recommended not to fish, participate in recreational activities or drink the water if:
- The water appears greenish or off color
- The water smells different
- Dead or distressed animal and marine life are present.
Algae may grow in lakes, canals and rivers of the county for the foreseeable future. There are a large number of these fresh water bodies, making it impractical to track the algae conditions in all areas. A warning will be issued if toxic blooms are identified in public areas.