Area Water Woes Addressed: Local, State and Federal Efforts

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Quite a few things have happened over the past week concerning our continued fight for better water quality.

Our area has been fighting water issues for years, mostly tied to water that is released from Lake Okeechobee when rain run-off fills up the lake beyond the level declared safe by the Army Corps of Engineers. When the level rises, the Corps opens the gates and drains the lake westward into the Caloosahatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico and eastward into the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon. Run-off from the rivers’ watersheds contributes to the problem. The fresh water and the pollutants it carries damage estuaries on both sides of the state, lowering the salinity and turning the normally turquoise water brown. This has been a summer rainy-season issue for years, but this year, January rainfall broke records going back to 1932 and the Lake O releases are flowing during the height of tourist season.

Last Wednesday, three local mayors made a trip to our nation’s Capital to plead for relief. On Saturday, two federal legislators visited Fort Myers to see the brown water firsthand, and on Monday President Obama signed into law a bill that will protect some 17,000 acres in southern Lee County. Also on Monday, the Lee County Visitor’s and Convention Bureau (VCB) held a special webinar to address concerns about both the freshwater releases and red tide.

On Saturday, Senior Senator Bill Nelson paid a visit to Fort Myers where he and United States Representative Curt Clawson met with all Lee County mayors and vowed to pass legislation introduced that would get federal dollars flowing to fund the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). The group also toured the riverfront in downtown Fort Myers where they got a firsthand look at the brown water flowing down the Caloosahatchee River.

Last December, both the House and the Senate approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) – the first new water bill to come out of D.C. since 2007- but CEPP was not included in the plan. At the meeting on Saturday, Nelson assured everyone that a new water bill including CEPP would pass in the Senate.

“We’re going to pass it,” he said. “Probably by summer.”

Nelson also encouraged Florida residents to demand that their state legislators use Amendment One funds to ‘buy land south of the lake and north of the lake’.

“75% of the people approved it, and they want that money to be used for environmentally endangered lands,” he said.

Clawson told people his plans to file several new bills in the coming weeks, one instructing the Army Corps of Engineers to get the Herbert Hoover dike rehabilitation done in five years, another that would encourage the federal government to buy land south of the lake if the state won’t and another that would give the state a one-year relief from the Endangered Species Act to get more water flowing south.

Not everyone present at the meeting agreed that sugar cane fields are a key factor in the dirty water flowing from the lake.

“This is not from agriculture, this water is coming from cow pastures and Disney World north of Lake Okeechobee,” said Clewiston Mayor Phillip Roland.

Another bill written by Clawson and championed by Nelson passed both the House and Senate and was signed by President Obama on Monday. This places 17,044 acres in Collier County into the Coast Barrier Resources System.

Also on Saturday, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Lee, St. Lucie and Martin counties, giving state, regional and local agencies the ability “to waive or deviate from their respective rules, ordinances, or orders” as needed to deal with the emergency. The declaration expires in 30 days but can be extended to 90 days. In a news release, Scott blamed inadequate funding by the federal government and called on the Obama administration to fund more than $800 million in repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike so the lake could hold more water and prevent discharges. Scott did not mention the approximately $750 million in state Amendment One funds that voters approved in 2014 for land and water stewardship.

This past Monday morning, the Lee County Visitor’s and Convention Bureau (VCB) held a ‘Water Quality Webinar for Tourism Employees’ where representatives from the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, the Lee County Health Department and the City of Sanibel gave an interesting and informative presentation addressing everything from how water in the state of Florida is managed to the causes and effects of red tide.

At the beginning of the webinar, the VCB’s Pam Brown explained that the purpose of the presentation was for education only – no solutions to the ongoing issues of water releases and red tide would be shown.

SFWMD’s Phil Flood began by explaining how we got to where we are now in regards to how water flows and out of Lake Okeechobee.

“Before, gravity dictated how the water flowed out of Lake O south to Florida Bay,” he said. “In 1848, Congress gave all swamp lands to the state of Florida as part of the ‘Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act’ – with the condition that they be drained for development and farming.”

So popular was this notion that ad campaigns and postcards were distributed during the first two decades of the 20th century invited people to move to the newly drained swamp.

“The Everglades Drainage District was created, and between 1905 and 1928 the Caloosahatchee was dredged and straightened, the St. Lucie canal was constructed,” he said. “The result of all that effort was a 1947 major hurricane that left much of the southern half of the state underwater.”

This led to the creation of the Central and Southern Florida project – constructed between 1949 and 1970 and designed for flood control – which connected all lakes south of Lake O, expanded the dike, created a large levee from the lake to Florida Bay to keep east coast development intact, and created Water Conservation Areas and Everglades Agricultural Areas to the south and created direct routes to the estuaries.

“We went from a natural system to over 2,000 miles of canals and levees, 71 pumping stations, 450,000 acre feet of water storage in lakes and 959,000 of acre feet in the Water Conservation Areas (WCA’s),” Flood continued. “This has proven efficient but there are challenges in moving water south and keeping up with development.”

Flood said the biggest problem is never knowing how much rain is going to come and when, reiterating that this year’s El Nino has caused record levels all over the state. He showed a series of slides depicting how much of the water coming into our estuary comes from the vast Caloosahatchee River watershed (land between Lake O and the Gulf of Mexico)

“During the last dry season, nearly all the water came from the lake to keep salinity levels balanced,” he said.  “During the summer, nearly all the water came from the watershed. Last month when the rain spiked, only 12% came from the lake. Since then the rain has tapered off, and lake releases have increased to the point that – last week – 65% came from Lake O.”

Flood said that, as far as nutrients go, the Caloosahatchee is impaired for nitrogen.

“Over the last 5 years, 1/3 of that nitrogen load came from Lake Okeechobee, which itself received 91% of its nutrient load from areas north of the lake,” he said.

Finally, Flood pointed to possible solutions that include large-scale reservoirs, shallow reservoirs to capture and hold water for treatment and mentioned that work on many of these projects has begun.

“We have over 40 active restoration projects right now,” he said. “Our priority is to get those finished as nearly all of them will clean the water and move it south.”

Dr. Tracy Fanara

Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory

Fanara’s presentation focused primarily on red tide and how people can use sites like Mote’s Beach Conditions Report to see what’s happening at local beaches.

“Our goal at Mote is to research interactions between humans and the environment to protect public health, natural resources and the environment,” she said. “Red Tide causes wildlife fatalities, fishery closings and causes between $23-$84 million in losses to tourism.”

Fanara explained that it is the ‘brevetoxin’ that is responsible for fish kills, respiratory effects, shellfish poisoning and wildlife deaths.

“We have not fully established causes, but red tide has been occurring since the 1700’s,” she said. “Research suggests blooms start offshore and that nutrient loads may contribute to sustaining a bloom.”

Tracy detailed the many tools Mote uses to research red tide and said that – between 2012 and 2015 – they expanded their coastal survey to include 16 stations along the west coast of Florida, shifting south in 2013, and found that – while there is a correlation between red tide and freshwater outflows from rivers – there was no direct link with discharges from the Caloosahatchee River.

“We also redeveloped our Beach Conditions Reporting System – which includes reports from 27 beaches – with the main focus being to alert the public of red tide effects,” she said. “New additions include water temperature, jellyfish count, crowd size and pictures. This is available to everyone at visitbeaches.org. We hope to get Citizen Science out this year so anyone with a cell phone on a beach anywhere can also report in.”

Jennifer Roth

Florida Department of Health

Jennifer Roth addressed what people can do to alleviate the symptoms of red tide and addressed concerns about bacteria in the water.

“As far as red tide – swimming is safe for most people if the algae bloom is not onshore, but we do encourage people walking on the beach to wear shoes so they don’t get cuts from shells,” she said. “High levels of red tide can cause chest cold like symptoms, so if that happens, go inside and turn on the air conditioning and make sure windows are shut. Be aware that the effects can be felt a mile inland. People with chronic respiratory conditions should avoid the area entirely.”

Roth said that – during red tide blooms – the Health Department participates in weekly conference calls and monitors local hospitals and hotlines to see how many reports there are before releasing media alerts.

“We don’t post signs at beaches because red tide is so patchy,” she said. “But we do post them for bacteria. We test 13 saltwater and 2 freshwater beaches for enterococci bacteria because it can make you sick. Under normal conditions, we have signs that say ‘No Water Quality Advisory’ as conditions are fine at this time.”

Roth emphatically stated that there is no correlation between water releases from Lake Okeechobee and bacteria count.

“Bacteria is naturally occurring, and the water at the beach is pretty safe – unless you swallow or allow it come into an open cut,” she said. “This is especially true if you have a compromised immune system (cancer or other chronic disease). If you do get a cut, clean it out and, if the infection is not healing, seek medical care to get antibiotics.”

James Evans

Sanibel Director of Natural Resources

Sanibel’s Director of Natural Resources James Evans spoke about algae, the wrack line and beach management.

“We get a lot of questions about things washing up on the beach, so today I’m going to focus on what you may find on the beach,” he said. “Weather really affects the quality of our beaches, rainfall influences the color and temperature as well as stormwater runoff from Lake O and the watershed.”

Dr. Evans touched on the importance of the wrack line and how it catches sand and seeds and provides food for birds, fish and crabs.

“We also see things like sea pork, pen shells, and after the BP oil spill we never did get any tar balls – but we did get plenty of sea squirts that look like tar balls,” he said. “As far as jellyfish, most are harmless with the exception of the sea nettles, pink meanies and lions mane – but will not cause a trip to the hospital.”

Evans said that ‘excessive’ amounts of red drift algae will be cleaned up but some amounts are normal and actually helpful.

“Red tide and red drift algae are not nearly the same thing,” he said. “We resist raking because it protects snowy plovers and baby turtles.”

Keri Hendry Weeg