Irma Aftermath

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Brown Water to Linger

 When Hurricane Irma struck Southwest Florida just over one month ago, she did not restrict her damage to our region, but moved straight up the spine of The Sunshine State, dropping copious rain all the way into Georgia. As Florida slopes north to south, tropical precipitation would historically drain to the Everglades, but manmade drainage now reroutes that to Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and Saint Lucie estuaries. As a result, Fort Myers Beach has been experiencing brown-colored water since the first few days following Irma.

Rae Burns, Stormwater and Environmental Technician for Fort Myers Beach. Photo by Gary Mooney.

“We are still cleaning up all the mess from Irma,” explained Rae Burns, the Stormwater & Environmental Technician for the Town of Fort Myers Beach, “and there is still a lot of work to do, especially on the Back Bay with mangroves. If people on the island need help with their permitting process or anything else, please come to Town Hall, as we are here to help you recover every step of the way. Remember that storms are good things, as long as we avoid devastation, especially because they refill our aquifers and we always desperately need that. Irma brought a lot of problems, but overall the beach is doing OK.”

Burns said that Fort Myers Beach water, despite its brown color most likely from chemical runoffs, “is absolutely safe. We had some red tide algae this summer, as the wind and current caught everything just right, but the Lee County Health Department only found traces of bacteria, so business is good to go for the beach! Should that ever change, we will take special precautions and the Town will immediately notify the community.”

Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resources Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, during a tour of the Caloosahatchee River last year. Photo by Gary Mooney.

“This is difficult to answer, because I am not a medical person,” added Rae Anne Wessel, the Natural Resources Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. “Testing and the numbers say water is safe, despite its brownish color. I would be cautious about going in if I had any cuts. Keep an eye out for children, to make sure they do not get water in their mouth or eyes or ears or nose if possible, but there is no current sample that is even close to being a concern for Fort Myers Beach.”

A Very Wet Year

Wessel said the problem is most likely the result “of the voluminous water moving through Florida and Lake Okeechobee right now, left over from Irma. To show you how much is rushing through the system, as an example, 27,000 cubic feet/second passed through the Franklin Lock a few days ago, when its normal daily capacity is 2,800 cubic feet/second, so ten times the standard flow. This is because Lake Okeechobee is (over) 17-feet-high when its usual level is 13 to 14 feet, so these massive discharges are necessary for public safety around the Herbert Hoover Dam, as this is the lake’s highest level since 2005. We already had heavy rains from early June and late August, as well as Tropical Storm Emily in late July, so 2017 was already a very wet year before Irma. Water is coming into the lake six times faster than the US Army Corps of Engineers can release it, since we do not channel it south to the Everglades as was historically the case, so there is no end in sight to these releases.”

“The center of the state continues to receive a lot of rainfall,” agreed Burns, “so anything that hits the ground up north eventually drains south to the lake, so it is essential we restore a safe and permanent flow to the Everglades, to allow the lake to hold less and not more water, so any future hurricane will not lead to a worse tragedy than just some harmless brown water.”

“The current overflow situation will probably go on for a couple more months,” Wessel explained, “and that is not good for our economy, tourism or fishing industries. This year’s high water pretty much washed out the spawning season, so we hope that will recover next year. Rather than storing more water in Lake Okeechobee, as some of our state leaders suggest, we need to move water, as that is the heart and lungs of a vibrant aquatic system, that generates fisheries and stimulates a healthy ecosystem and provides natural filtration to prevent bad water, and that is really important to us here on Florida’s west coast. Rather than containing more water in the lake, we should pursue real initiatives for natural drainage so some future hurricane doesn’t end in disaster, and we can do that by restoring the natural flow south to the Everglades and Florida Bay.”

Nature’s Blue Light Special!

Wessel explained that Irma led to an interesting phenomenon for the Caloosahatchee River, “because as it came in, it actually pulled all the water right out, down to the river bottom, drying out the seagrasses, then it all rushed back in, producing a double-whammy. This disrupted the physical anchoring of the seagrass, then surrounded it with dark brown water for weeks, causing a severe limit to the amount of light that reaches the bottom for photosynthesis, especially halting the blue spectrum of light, so nature’s version of a Blue Light Special! This leads to a third whammy, as the absence of light creates a lack of oxygen, and extremely low oxygen levels results in less fish.”

“The Caloosahatchee estuary requires a very specific set of environmental conditions to function properly, as it is so sensitive,” explained Burns. “If you have too much saltwater, it freaks out, and if you have too much freshwater, it freaks out! Unfortunately, the Caloosahatchee estuary is about as far out of whack as possible, because the brackish water where salty and fresh meets should be 33 miles upriver by the Franklin Lock, but is now about 8 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. This is not an issue on the beach side of the island, because the Gulf is so huge, but it is a prime concern for Estero Bay.”

“The triple whammy for seagrass means fisheries will miss an entire seasonal class, and they are the key to the whole food chain,” Wessel explained. “Oysters are being overrun with fresh water, and they can only survive with their shells closed for so long, and it can take years to recover from a single lost season like this one. There can be ramifications for blooms and red tide, as nothing in the environment happens in isolation, and there are consequences to all these weather extremes, and we are running out of time and options to reset the conditions.”

Cycle of Interconnectedness

Wessel said that in addition to restoring the southern flow to the Everglades, with water storage and treatment components, “we need policies that keep people from developing properties in floodplains and flow ways, especially now that we face serious concerns from sea level rise. Development creates impervious cover, so we need to take a fresh look at how we engineer our communities, as well as getting a better handle on how to control water flows from the Kissimmee region and the Lake Okeechobee watershed.”

“Oysters and seagrasses are my two main concerns,” Burns agreed. “Seagrass areas are a great nursery for baby fish and are key to keeping our ecosystem afloat, so if you remove them, you negatively affect everything. Oysters filter water that reduces nitrogen, to make our ecosystem cleaner and safer. Everything is really all connected together, and people need to realize that what affects us at one end can positively or negatively affect the entire system all the way down the line, and that is why it is crucial to restore the historic flow south into the Everglades as intended by nature. This affects our entire economy, from our tourism to those who live on farmland to our fishing industry and our job market, so it is all one big cycle of interconnectedness.”

Wessel sadly expects the brown water to linger for the balance of 2017, even if we do not receive any more significant rain. “It has been quite a weather year, hasn’t it, as this has been one for the books, but then we seem to now say almost every year this is one for the books. When does ‘one for the books’ become the new normal? When do we recognize we are playing the game under the old system when what we really require is a whole new set of rules? If the highs and lows become the new normal, how do we adapt our civilization? I see people all the time now building new and higher seawalls to combat rising water levels, but we need to take a hard look at what is happening to our water and environment for a permanent solution. Look what happened after Katrina and now Harvey, Irma and Marie, and ask if what we are doing is actually safe, so maybe we all need to really think about that.”

 

Gary Mooney