COVID-19 Dwarfing Water Concerns

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Remember Our Water

A major crisis struck Fort Myers Beach with a fury, causing businesses to close, unemployment to soar, and a general mood of uncertainty that lasted for months. The COVID-19 pandemic of Spring 2020? Nope! The water quality panic of Summer 2018!
“Has the average person almost completely forgotten about our water quality issues due to the coronavirus pandemic is a great question,” said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani! “For people right now, the primary issue is coronavirus, so water quality is not a priority, but that may change quickly in the near future if we develop cyanobacteria blooms or have to deal with a hurricane over the summer. Only time will tell.”

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Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani

Are our local, state, and national political leaders forgetting about water quality, however? “I don’t see them ignoring water, but it is certainly on the back burner a little bit,” offered John. “Of course, our main national politician, President Donald Trump, suspended all environmental liability regulations during the coronavirus pandemic, so that is obviously not a good thing, so he subjugated environmental issues as a result. It is important to remember the public health aspect of the pandemic, as serious scientists are starting to wonder if the underlying causes of coronavirus may stem from environmental matters.”

Clean Waterways Act

The Florida Legislature recently passed the “Clean Waterways Act” and forwarded it to Governor Ron DeSantis for his signature. “From what I know of the ‘Clean Waterways Act,’ you need to have a bit of a leap of faith to believe that it will make a positive difference,” John related. “Its water quality regulations rely on state agencies to take actions to meet these problems, but their record in this regard over the past decade or more is not great, but the Legislature is saying, ‘trust us and we will come up with solutions,’ and that is the leap of faith, so I guess I will believe it when I see it. Compounding the problem is the cumulative impact of Florida’s great population growth, and statewide and locally, I see no desire to impede that growth, so I do not see that changing overnight; again we have to wait and see, based on these track records.”

Water-Quality-Calusa-Waterkeeper
A heavily grazed pasture, less than a mile from the Caloosahatchee River, will become a source of phosphorus, along with fertilized lawns and septic systems during the first heavy rains of the season, part of “The First Flush Effect.” Photos courtesy of Calusa Waterkeeper.

John stated that during this time of “Social Distancing,” the average person can still help out the water quality movement. “Since Governor DeSantis’ ‘Safer at Home’ Executive Order still allows people to fish, boat or kayak observing social distancing protocols, keep an eye out for any signs of cyanobacteria and Blue-Green Algae and if you spot any, please contact us immediately at info@calusawaterkeeper.org so we can document them. We have a huge project area that includes Lake Okeechobee all the way down the Caloosahatchee River, and many governmental agencies curtailed monitoring efforts during the pandemic, so we need as many eyes as possible out there to look for any signs of blooms or other things like fish kills or elicit discharges, as we would appreciate knowing about those.”
The Calusa Waterkeeper organization is working with Vimeo so everyone can watch its recent documentary, “Troubled Waters,” at home, since so many are homebound these days. Due to be released April 13, the documentary can be pre-ordered now for 48 hour rental for $2.99.  For details, see the Calusa Waterkeeper Facebook page. The movie tells the story of how, at the height of the Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB), the Calusa Waterkeeper interviewed many of the nation’s leading HAB research scientists as well as medical experts on the front lines. The 40-minute documentary includes important information on the potential risks posed by HAB.

The Army Corps & C-43

“There is a short and long answer as to if the United States Army Corps of Engineers is releasing enough freshwater from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee River this very dry season,” opined John. “The short answer is ‘No’; the longer answer is we appreciate the extra water the Army Corps is giving us, as we are in a pretty bad drought right now, so even minimal releases are helpful. We are receiving historically low rainfall, so there is no basin runoff, meaning basically all our water we currently have is from the Lake and its level is low. Remember what we are receiving is the Minimum Low Flow into our estuary, and there is a difference between minimum flow levels, the salinity envelope, and the maximum flow for estuary restoration. At stake are things like tapegrasses that are an indicator species of the health of the estuary. Tapegrasses began to regrow in cages over the past couple of years and are now doing really well, but unless we receive more rain or Lake water soon, they will be lost if it gets too salty. Keep in mind the Army Corps operates a regional water system and for the first time, we truly see a balance between local environmental issues and agricultural interests, and that is better than in the past.”

The South Florida Water Management District is still taking public input on the C-43 Reservoir stormwater treatment component, John added. “If you wish to leave a comment, you can do so at sfwmd.gov. They will not release a final draft until later this year, and probably not the final report until sometime next year, so I encourage folks to do that, as this is a very complicated issue and one I wish they had already addressed 10 or 12 years ago.”

John cautioned everyone to prepare for a tough water quality year in 2020. “Looking at the data, it looks like we are starting to see signs of a Blue-Green Algae bloom that perhaps has the look of being a big one in the making. Our water temperature is already rapidly rising, and our first big rainfall of the season can trigger it – we call that ‘The First Flush Effect.’ A sweep of factors must all come together to make a cyanobacteria bloom, but we are seeing small segments of cyanobacteria popping up in the river, so it could be a bad season. There is nothing normal anymore, and as an ecologist, you expect the unexpected now!”

For more information on the Calusa Waterkeeper organization and its work, visit calusawaterkeeper.org