It's been just more than one year since high flow regulatory discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River began a debate about water management practices.
During the 2013 rainy season, when officials were "forced" to drain Lake O into the two rivers, prolonged saltwater/freshwater infusion mixed with waste water and fertilizer runoff involving nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients have been said to be the catalyst for harmful algae blooms, including red tide and toxic blue green algae. This has allegedly damaged sea grasses and other plant life, caused oysters to die and fish to relocate to deeper, unaffected waters. Our once aqua-blue Gulf and Back Bay turned to a coffee-brown, brackish color.
Since then, there have been Florida east coast and west coast rallies, business luncheon speeches, forums and Congressional briefings aimed toward the matter. While political figures have announced money allocations towards particular long-term projects, environmentalists have pushed for short-term solutions and a long-term project that sends lake water south into a flow way to the Everglades.
A storm brews over the Caloosahatchee River at the WP Franklin Locks recently. Water management practices dealing with high flow regulatory discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River are still in question.
The second annual Save Our River Clean Water Rally took place at Phipps Park in Stuart on Aug. 3.
"What we've witnessed in this state for decades is anything but responsible. In fact, it's criminal," said John Scott of the Clean Water Initiative of Florida said at the rally. "Privatized profits and socialized cleanup is not fair to our natural resources or the taxpayers of this state.
"Billions of dollars in proposed solutions are on the table that won't come close to resolving our discharge problems. We've had a viable solution for decades. It's called sending the water south. Yet, after all these years, we still haven't been able to make it happen, mostly due to politics, money and misinformation."
Many Southwest Floridians have called for "Plan 6" -a restoration of the "River of Grass" to the Everglades Agricultural Area via Sugarcane farmlands and existing public lands. Former Lee County commissioner Ray Judah, the current coordinator of Florida Coastal and Oceans Coalition, advocates cleaning up the waterways by three different measures, one involving Lee County Commission to "coordinate with Congressional and Legislative delegation to support acquisition of 50,000 acres of land between the North New River and Miami canals and south of Lake Okeechobee for storage, treatment and conveyance of water to the Everglades, thereby, alleviating the massive discharge of polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee."
Coastal estuaries on both coasts have suffered.
Staci-lee Sherwood has worked in the state Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission program for the past seven years on the east coast and stated she has been "rescuing thousands of sea turtles." She would like state officials ban all dumping and discharges into the Indian River Lagoon before doing anything else.
"I spent several months working in the rehab center taking care of many of (the sea turtles) back in 2010 and know firsthand how sick they are getting with the fibropapiloma tumors, which is caused by exposure to toxins, like those being dumped into the lagoon," she said. "We can't keep polluting the lagoon. We are at DEF CON 1 here and need action now."
Approved projects like C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir Project are not seen as the overall solution.
"It is purely a dry season solution that has no water treatment component to it," said Scott of C-43. "It's basically a blue green algae incubator until such time as the projects proposed to accompany it that provide water treatment are done as well. From a wet season 'flow absorber' perspective, it only holds 170,000 acre feet of water, or about 55 billion gallons, which equates to about nine days of 2013 peak flow. Needless to say, it's a drop in the bucket and certainly won't help water quality until the water treatment is there for its releases.
"Obviously the best thing we can do for our river(s) from a water quality perspective is send the water south into a flow way. The only things standing in the way of a Plan 6 flow way to send the water south are politics and profits."
Back home, Beach resident and activist John Heim believes the water quality is even worse.
"It is the combinations of the Lake Okeechobee discharges, flesh eating water diseases, the red tide algae bloom the size of a state of Connecticut, and, of course, the never-talked-about remnants of the BP oil spill that is now be getting to show," Heim said. "But you can't hide ecological disaster for ever. I truly believe that the health of our waters is in really bad shape here on Fort Myers Beach. Yes, visually, it isn't as bad as last year. However, what you cannot see can be even more harmful."
Keeping the pressure on environmentally is important. Heim also agrees with Plan 6.
"That's the only real fix and the only solution that holds the most common sense," he said. "Allowing the water flow south not only reduces the discharges to the west in the east, it restores the natural flow to the Everglades known as the river of grass. By connecting our rivers to the lake and using them as dumping grounds, we have simply destroyed Mother Nature's plan, while strangling off the Everglades.
"Every day, I work directly on the beach, and every single day I over hear a tourist say, 'what's wrong with the water?' It makes me cringe, because I know before too long if this keeps up that these very same tourists will not return to Fort Myers Beach."
Town of Fort Myers Beach Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen continues to monitor the situation and is on weekly conference calls with local scientists, wildlife refuge officials, state senators' office personnel and the Army Corps of Engineers. Discussions involve updated local estuary conditions, rainfall conditions and weekly and seasonal weather forecasts. Recommendations and requests are pitched and decisions are then made.
Last year, high flows were recorded to be up to 10,000 cubic feet per second. Scientific research shows that anything higher than 2,800 cu ft/s is harmful to the estuaries.
"This year, we were able to get more water through the dry season, which really helped the estuaries," Laakkonen said. "We were hoping for some more fresh water release in May, but the lake dropped too low. The salinity did get a little too high, higher than we liked in the upper estuary."
Recently, heavier rains at the Lake O area have resulted in heavier flows down the Caloosahatchee River. Those flows have exceeded the harmful levels.
"We want to get those flows back down below 2,800 cubic feet per second to make sure those releases get back down to a more manageable range for the ecology of the estuary," said Laakkonen. "Those high flow ranges can actually drive salinity too low for sea grasses in the lower estuary and can also have an effect of blowing out fish, vertebrae and oyster larvae from the estuary."
Last year's high flows are still showing effects, according to the Town's scientist.
"One thing we are pretty sure of from last year's flows is that a lot of excess nutrients came down through the river from both the Caloosahatchee Watershed and the lake," said Laakkonon. "It is very likely that those nutrients are still in the near-shore area.
"Since those nutrients are above what you would normally expect out there, they can contribute to algae blooms that occasionally affect our shoreline."
Beach algae too thin to remove
A recent algae bloom on the Beach at mid-island was monitored closely, but Town officials believed it didn't warrant being dispersed of. High tides removed the algae naturally.
"The algae was so thin and so wide spread and so mixed in with sand that, if we tried to remove it, we would have actually taken tons of sand off the beach," said Laakkonen. "We don't want to damage the beach just to remove some algae."
Red tides have remained away from the area. A bloom is still being monitored off shore in Pinellas County.
"We haven't had a red tide anywhere in the area for the past several months," said Laakkonen. "The bloom that has been talked about is far off shore and further up the coast."
Town officials would like residents and visitors to know that if algae does pile up on Fort Myers Beach and can be removed without damaging beachfront, they will.
"The beach is the basis of our economy, our tourism and our quality of life, so we don't want to destroy the beach by just taking some algae off," Laakkonen said.