Dry Conditions = Little Water Flowing From Lake

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    Water, water, every where and nor any drop to drink.”

     That old line from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner describes the frustration felt by local conservationists as they deal with water releases from Lake Okeechobee – while excessive releases are harmful, our estuary actually depends on them to keep salinity levels in check during the dry season.

    “I call it the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ – our estuary seems to always be getting too little or too much water too thrive,” said Rae Ann Wessel, a 25+ year veteran of our local ‘water wars’ and Natural Resource Director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation. “Right now, we aren’t getting enough and salinity levels are rising. If this continues, it’s going to seriously impact the tape grass in the upper estuary that are desperately trying to come back.”

    According to the weekly Caloosahatchee & Estuary Condition Report released last week by Wessel, the US Army Corps of Engineers – who is responsible for managing the lake and the dike that surrounds it – releases from the lake have been reduced to 559 cfs (cubic feet per second), which is causing salinity levels to get dangerously high.

    “It’s been very dry, there’s been no rain, so we’re not getting any water from the watershed,” Rae Ann said. “When conditions are like this, we absolutely do need water from the lake. We’ve been getting some releases but they are small – we’d like the Corps to increase them to between 800 and 1,200 cfs.”

    Wessel said that salinity levels in the upper estuary need to average 10 psu to avoid harm, and the chart she showed us depicted levels ranging from 8.5 to nearly 13.5 over the past week.

    Franklin Lock, located in Olga, is approximately 33 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico.
    Franklin Lock, located in Olga, is approximately 33 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico.

    “Since November 12, we’ve been averaging about 12 psu, but it’s the duration of time levels stay that high that matters,” she said. “If that is our 30-day average, the grass – which acts as a nursery for many creatures – is in trouble.”

    The irony is that, six weeks ago, the estuary was getting releases of 4,000 cfs – too much.

    “2 weeks later, we were at 147 cfs – how do you expect all those little critters to adjust to that much change? It’s like being dressed for 100 degree weather and suddenly the temperature drops to 12 degrees – we’re asking these creatures to adapt to schizophrenic conditions,” Wessel said. “And we’re the ones controlling it.”

    While interviewing Wessel, she told us that the misconception that all water coming from Lake O is bad couldn’t be further from the truth.

    “It is extremely frustrating for those of us on the front lines of this issue when people who don’t get, or won’t get, all of the facts and then go about misleading others,” she said. “We’ve been working with this system – as we inherited it – for over 20 years and we have a very clear understanding of it.”

    In fact, during the dry season, like now, the water coming from the lake is actually of better quality than that coming from the watershed.

    “The reason is that – during a non-storm event – water that has been sitting in the lake for awhile has been ‘photo-bleached’ – meaning the sun’s UV rays have bleached out harmful nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous,” she said. “Water running off the watershed has had no residency time and will not be as good of quality.”

    Wessel said the lake is now at 14.43 feet, meaning its now in the ‘Beneficial Use Sub-Band’ of the Lake Okeechobee Releases to Tide Schedule (LORS).

    “However, they are predicting a very strong El Nino forecast – one that would rival the El Nino of 1997,” she said. “In that year, the lake rose by a net of 7 feet between May and September.”

    El Nino is caused by above average water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and has traditionally been linked to wetter summers and higher lake levels in south Florida. In May, we reported that a strong El Nino had been forecast for this past summer, but it weakened as the months went by.

    “With the predictions and global effect, all you can do is what you can do, and all the predictions are showing wetter and cooler conditions,” Wessel said. “But right now, the Corps have been told to hold back water – they are cutting us back so we’re being harmed by low releases right now.”

    Wessel explained that the Corps are the ones responsible for the health and safety of the lake, including the dike and structures on it, though they usually defer to the South Florida Water Management District during dry conditions because they are the agency that issues water use permits.

    “We have to fight for water against other interests such as agriculture – they need water, too,” she said. “It should be a level playing field, so we’re always striving for a balance.

    “Right now, the only water we get is what’s flowing through S-79 (Franklin Lock), and we need it – we need the water from the lake.”

    Keri Hendry Weeg