With water releases from Lake Okeechobee up to 9,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) – once again sending brown water shooting into the Gulf of Mexico and tourists scurrying – the largest group of local lawmakers ever assembled in downtown Fort Myers met Wednesday afternoon for an event designed to find a way to finally do something about it. Called the ‘Lake Okeechobee Learning Collaborative’, the event was hosted by the mayors of Lee County and supported by the Florida League of Cities and the Florida League of Mayors, and was facilitated by Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane and Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson. The afternoon event featured representatives from 19 counties along with speakers from the South Florida Water Management District, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Mayor Randy Henderson opened the meeting by thanking Florida League of Cities President Matt Surrency suggesting the gathering.
“Remember January of 2016?” he said. “Mayor Ruane, Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki and I went up to Washington D.C. to talk about water quality. We came home to a nightmare of brown water and angry residents.”
Henderson said he was initially frustrated because he felt he had little power to do much about it.
“As mayors, we have no jurisdiction, but we can organize ourselves around a plan,” he said. “That’s where our journey began. This affects everyone…this half of the Florida peninsula is deeply affected. We’re not interested in pointing fingers or competing with the east coast. There isn’t a person on this planet who has the one and only answer to this problem.”
“Like Mark Twain once said, ‘we can’t begin to distort the facts till we have them all’ – we all have to work together on this and quit squabbling.”
Henderson introduced Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, saying he has tremendous knowledge about local water issues and is ‘a relentless worker’.
“I’d like to thank he and Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki both,” Ruane said. “And Matt Surrency. We have learned that our 19 counties account for $1.3 trillion real estate of real estate value – that’s 55% of the entire state! We talk about what we need? They’re solutions and they’re expensive – but look at what’s at stake. Think about the tourists that come here – 1 out of 10 people who visit eventually move here. There are over 100 cities involved – we all want clean water. One thing I’ve learned in 10 years in office – things don’t go as fast as you want them to…our job is to see how to move the ball faster and get things done.”
Surrency said that this is a process, and that the people here today are ‘the boots on the ground’.
“This is how it starts,” he said. “Henry Ford talked about how coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress and working together is a success. The best part of this is that local officials have initiated this.”
City of Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans spoke about the Caloosahatchee River, explaining how the river was not originally connected to the lake and now the estuary is affected by both the lake and the vast Caloosahatchee Watershed, saying that – on average – 50% to 60% of the river’s water is runoff from our own watershed.
“We call this the Caloosahatchee Conundrum – the Goldilocks Principle – where we either have too much or too little,” he said. “When the releases are high, like in 2013, we see a plume stretching 14 miles into the Gulf. When there is too little water, harmful algae blooms due to stagnant conditions and salinities get too high in the tidal estuary – so we see die off of tape grass and mortality of oysters.”
“Over the last seven days, we’ve had an average of 9,046 cfs,” Evans continued. “We are seeing that water pushing well out into the Gulf, and this is having a real impact on seagrasses not yet recovered from earlier this year…Some of the comments we’ve seen from TripAdvisor: ‘water is murky and dark brown’; ‘our first visit was terrible’; ‘this is the worst location in the Gulf of Mexico and I’m from Texas’.” he said. “The economic impact of this carries far beyond the areas directly impacted, too.”
Martin County’s Deborah Drum talked about the issues faced on the east coast, including what excess fresh water is doing to the offshore reefs and Indian River Lagoon.
“There are signs posted all over the county at this point saying ‘no contact with the water’ due to the blue green algae,” she said. “There are blooms throughout the estuary, boat basins, parks. People are going out of business.”
Next, Matt Morrison of the South Florida Water Management District; Michael Collis of the Army Corps of Engineers and Drew Bartlett of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection discussed current and future projects.
Morrison said that the inflow capacity for Lake Okeechobee is 42,000 cfs, with 28,000 cfs outflow, the majority of which gets sent down either the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee Rivers.
“Only about 4,000-5,000 cfs gets sent south,” he said. “When the 2008 LORS (Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule) was created, and the acceptable lake levels were lowered based on health and safety concerns for those living outside of the Herbert Hoover dike, also because of environmental reasons due to the lake being too deep for too long being harmful to fish.”
Morrison touched on the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STA’s) within the Water Treatment Areas (WTAs), and the challenges the District faces in moving water south.
“We are in the process of spending $900,000 to expand those to treat water to move south, but there are other factors – these ‘created wetlands’ cause endangered species to come and nest there so that stops us from pushing extra water through them. In addition, we’ve got some pump capacity issues that inhibit us from moving water south. STA 5 and 6 have no canals attached to them, so we are going to be connecting them so we can move more water south. But there are limitations – we need to have a flowing river of grass, not a gusher – and we can’t overflow tree islands.”
Morrison concluded by outlining some of the projects that will help with the problem including CEPP (Central Everglades Planning Program, which is awaiting authorization from Washington – and Western Everglades Restoration.
The Corps’ Michael Collis reported that 21 miles of cutoff wall and 18 culvert modifications have been completed on the HH dike.
Drew Bartlett from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said that phosphorous levels in Lake Okeechobee are down to 40% of the expected reduction, and that the FDEP is working with local governments to reduce nitrogen levels in the Caloosahatchee River to meet Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs).
“These represent major state investments,” he said. “And in Florida Bay, it’s not a pollution problem, it’s a hyper-salinity problem – the water that is flowing into the bay from the Everglades National Park is good.”
Representative Matt Caldwell then facilitated a federal, state and local policy discussion where those in attendance asked questions of the presenters.
One of the questions was about the Keys communities and what roles they play. “We’ll take all your water from the east and west – send it south to us!” said a representative from Monroe County.
Another question – posed to Morrison – asked how nitrogen loads in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers could ever be controlled if there are no nitrogen standards for Lake Okeechobee.
“Right now we have to implement the law as structured, and Lake O is controlled by phosphorous,” Morrison replied. “We need to reach upstream to control the nitrogen, and we plan on adding that to our reports – how much reduction in the lake’s nitrogen level are we getting with the Best Management Practices (BMPs)?”
After a series of questions about where to send the water, Evans and Drum became visibly frustrated at how much their counties are being asked to endure.
“If the estuaries are taking the brunt of the discharges, where is the shared adversity?” said James, to a round of applause. “The STA’s, ETA’s, Lake O, canals – they all have regulation schedules. Our estuaries do not – that’s not fair.”
At the end of the meeting, the group decided to formally bind their union by becoming part of the Florida League of Cities’ ‘Compact Initiative’. The next meeting will be held in Stuart. To follow the progress of all the projects involved in fixing the River of Grass, go to evergladesrestoration.gov.
“This started with 3 mayors going to D.C.,” Ruane concluded. “We now have a coalition of 161 cities, a ‘white paper’ endorsed by over 250 entities that says what we want, and a $2 trillion property base. Let’s get these projects moved up!”
Keri Hendry Weeg