State of Emergency – Not So Much

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Shortly after we went to press on June 30th, Governor Rick Scott declared a ‘State of Emergency’ for the west coast of Florida due to the results of the excessive nutrient-polluted freshwater releases being made from Lake Okeechobee. The declaration came a day after a state of emergency was declared for the east coast of the state – where blue-green algae blooms are so bad that beaches are closed and residents are staying inside. While the algae issue on our coast is not anywhere near what is happening in communities like Stuart and Port St. Lucie, the stuff has made its way downriver as far as the Cape Coral Yacht Club and the eastern shore of Sanibel Island – though so far tests have yet to reveal any dangerous toxins.

So what has happened as a result of the declaration? This week we met with local officials, scientists and business owners to find out.

On June 29th, Scott declared a state of emergency for St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties – where massive algal blooms related to Lake O releases have shut down beaches and recreation areas. The following day, State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers; state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers; and state Rep. Ray Rodriguez, R-Estero, sent a joint letter to Scott’s office earlier in the day asking that Lee be added to the emergency declaration for the east coast.

In a press release sent with the declaration, Scott said that Lee being included “gives the county access to statewide, centralized services and allows staff to look at things in a different light”.

“It’s fantastic news,” the governor said. “We need to make sure that the west coast and east coast are viewed in tandem. The east coast has some severe impacts occurring right now, but we need to be vigilant.”

One thing that happens when a state of emergency is called is the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) sends a survey out to local businesses asking them about the impact. As of last week, 40 had responded.

“We have received nearly 40 survey responses from locally affected businesses,” said spokesperson Morgan McCord in an email. “More are likely to join them. Earlier this year, nearly 150 businesses in Lee, Martin and St. Lucie counties filed with the department to claim physical or financial damage after another crisis involving Lake Okeechobee water discharge.”

Jacki Liszak, owner of the Sea Gypsy Inn, received one of those surveys.

“It’s been bad for us – especially since the water is clear,” she said. “We had two complete cancellations yesterday, two guests shorten their stay by five days and more email us and say they were going to come stay but decided against it. Every day someone calls and asks about the water.”

Outrigger Resort’s Marketing Director Jeanne Bigos said that – as far as her resort – the water has ‘been a non-issue’.

Ellis Etter, General Manager of Wyndham Garden Resort told us the water is clear in front of his establishment and the only cancellations they experienced were after the first week of Scott’s declaration.

“Since then we’ve been okay,” he said. “The water is actually clear now.”

Another directive issued as a direct result of the declaration has also been addressed – the following day, July 1st, the Army Corps of Engineers reduced releases from the Moore Haven Lock on the west side of the big lake to 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), down 25% from the 4,000 cfs of previous weeks. But has it really helped?

Since discharges started Jan. 30, billions of gallons of Lake O water has been sent to the Caloosahatchee River, dumping tons of nutrients and lowering the salinity of the naturally brackish water. Both spur the growth of blue-green algae.

Stopping the discharges, at least for a week or two, would help get rid of the algae, said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, but simply reducing releases will have minimal effect.

“It might keep the algae from getting on our beaches,” Perry said. “But it won’t help the rest of the river.”

This week’s Caloosahatchee & Estuary Condition Report – issued by the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) and written by several local scientists – states that discharges into the estuary are, at a combined 4,158 cfs (2,285 from the lake and 2,211 from the watershed), still one and a half times the harm threshold and that blue green algae has been documented on over 35 miles of the river – from Alva to Cape Coral at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee.

“On July 7, the Lee County Environmental Lab recorded Cyanobacteria in abundance from the Alva boat ramp to the Franklin Lock; elevated levels of cyanobacteria from Franklin Lock to the midpoint bridge and at Iona,” the report reads, in part:  …”Salinity levels were in the harmful range for oysters at Peppertree Pointe Marina in Iona…and dark, murky water extends out from the Caloosahatchee into Pine Island Sound, through Blind Pass, Redfish Pass and along both Sanibel Islands and Fort Myers Beach. Ulva, a green algae, and seagrass are washing up on Sanibel and Fort Myers Beaches. “

“Governor Scott declared the state of emergency to address peoples’ outreach about the conditions on the coasts,” said the SCCF’s Natural Resources Director Rae Ann Wessel. “But some of the stuff doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Wessel, who was in our nation’s capital this week to speak at Representative Patrick Murphy’s ‘Lagoon Action Day’, an event the Stuart congressman is hosted to talk about harmful algal blooms, said that one of Scott’s directives is to ‘store more water north of the lake’.

“The upper chain of lakes’ storage capacity is very limited right now because they’ve been getting a lot of rain, too,” she said. “And the other thing the governor said is something we’ve been working on since last October – ask the South Florida Water Management District to engage private landowners to store water on their property.”

As far as the algae threat on the west coast of the state, Wessel told us that it has been detected in the areas mentioned but they are ‘waiting on test results’ to determine whether or not toxins are present.

“The algae may be there but that doesn’t mean it’s toxic,” she said. “So just use common sense before going in the water – don’t go in if you have open wounds, otherwise, look at the water. If it looks clear – even brown but clear – it’s safe.”

 

Keri Hendry Weeg