Lake O Releases Down, County Addresses Water Issue

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A couple of weeks ago, the Army Corps of Engineers slowed the amount of water releases coming from Lake Okeechobee down to 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Though this amount is much lower than the wide-open gushing of 9,000 cfs that the Corps was doing, it’s still much higher than the 2,800 cfs threshold that’s proven to cause damage to the Caloosahatchee River and our back bay estuary.

As of press time, the level of Lake Okeechobee dropped to 15.32 feet, in the range the Corps believes is safe (between 14.5 and 15.5 feet). However, a prediction of rainy weather over the weekend means discharges must continue, said Jim Jeffords, operations division chief of the Corps’ Jacksonville District.

“The less water flowing into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers brought some relief to communities in Lee County, which the Caloosahatchee cuts through on its way to the Gulf of Mexico,” Jeffords said. “The reduced discharges into the river will continue until further notice.”

Rainfall in January was similar to totals seen in the middle of the summer rainy season. Lake Okeechobee rose to more than 16 feet above sea level, causing the Army Corps to send the maximum of 9,000 cfs down the Caloosahatchee River.

The El Nino-caused record rainfall and the resulting deluge of nutrient-polluted water has caused an outcry all over the state, and a couple of weeks ago Senator Bill Nelson visited downtown Fort Myers accompanied by Representative Curt Clawson, who promised to file a number of bills aimed at addressing the discharges – including one that calls on the Army Corps of Engineers to finish the Herbert Hoover Dike in five years; a bill that encourages the federal government to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee if the state won’t do it; and a bill to give the state one-year relief from the Endangered Species Act to help maximize the water that flows south.

Last week, Clawson met with some local business leaders, fishing guides and scientific research centers to talk about possible legislation he may file later this year.

A bill, if drafted and proposed, would dedicate funding from the federal government that would be used “so if another El Nino happens in three or four years, we’re not going to experience the same situation.”

He also met with Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida who told him that one of the biggest priorities is to convince state and federal agencies to buy farmlands south of the lake.

Rae-Ann Wessel, Natural Resources Director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, says she is encouraged by all of that but would like the Corps to seriously consider lowering the releases even further in anticipation of the coming rainy season.

With a dry forecast for the coming week and three weeks of lake recession we recommend maximum practical releases to all outlets for the next week with the goal of lowering Lake water levels now to allow for a decrease in flows during the spring spawning season,” she said. “Given the unusually wet conditions we request the COE not target a lake level of 13.5 ft. on June 1, but instead target levels closer to 14 or 14.5 ft.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the Lee County Board of Commissioners (BoCC) held an afternoon workshop where they addressed the problem and discussed things they’d accomplished and wanted to accomplish. At that meeting, the Board agreed to a funding commitment for the following – on top of the $25 million they’ve spent on water projects over the last five to ten years: $12.2 million for future projects, $60 million estimated during the next 15 years for state-mandated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) compliance, $96 million spend over the last five years for stormwater management and a total of $316 million already spent on the purchase of Conservation 20/20 lands.

“The Caloosahatchee River flows about 70 miles from Moore Haven to San Carlos Bay,” said Natural Resources Director Roland Ottolini. “Caloosahatchee Watershed is about 1,400 square miles. When it is wet and Lee receives water releases from Lake Okeechobee, the contributing watershed nearly doubles, extending north to Orlando. More than 80 percent of the nutrient loading to the Caloosahatchee estuary is derived from east of Franklin Locks, making this not only a local issue but a regional issue.”

Ottolini pointed out that January of 2016 was the wettest on record, with an average of 11.2 inches of rain in Lee County.

“An additional foot of water storage on 2020 lands within the Caloosahatchee Watershed would hold the equivalent of 22 hours of Lake Okeechobee high releases,” he said. “Additional water storage on 2020 lands would entail extensive physical alterations with associated costs and permitting of infrastructure.”

To date, the county has made those improvements and completed storage projects on places like Powell Creek, the Ten Mile Canal and Gator Slough – among many others.

“Currently underway are the Prairie Pines Restoration, Spanish Creek and the Halfway Creek Filter Marsh at Three Oaks, and we are planning on future projects like Deep Lagoon Preserve and Sunniland/Nine Mile Run and regional projects like Boma – which is the C-43 water quality facility that we will work with the South Florida Water Management District on,” he said. One other project – the Lakes Park Littoral Zone – had funding from the state vetoed by Governor Rick Scott on Tuesday so it’s unclear where that project stands now.

Ottolini spoke about statewide projects like CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) and the challenges to moving the water south before touching on an action plan moving forward for the county.

“We are going to pursue Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) modifications once the Corps completes their post Dam Risk Assessment Study and advocate for shared adversity,” he said. “We’re also going to continue support for Legacy Florida for Everglades funding, the C-43 Reservoir and continue to pursue local water quality project funding.”

Keri Hendry Weeg