October 19, 2016
Lake O release volume can be more dangerous than water quality
Billions of gallons of freshwater flow down the Caloosahatchee River every year, and it carries tons upon tons of harmful nutrients to the river's estuary and coastal beach islands like Sanibel.
The impacts range from a discoloration of water to fish and marine mammal kills, as well as beach closures, hotel cancellations and a loss in local property values.
Some politicians and tourism industry groups said the brown water blanketing the coast earlier this year was harmless, that it was just a lot of water carrying a lot of natural things. But the flow of water and nutrients is far from natural, and the result is often fish and marine mammal kills, beach closures and hotel cancellations.
So is it the sheer amount of water coming down the river that leads to algae outbreaks and fish kills, or is the devil in the details – the numeric values given to nutrients that flow from Lake Okeechobee and the river's watershed?
Water quality scientists say both can devastate estuaries, which are the foundation of the entire marine ecosystem. No healthy estuary, no world-class fishing.
"If the water we were getting was like distilled water, that’s probably a larger effect because all the freshwater we’re getting is killing off the saltwater organisms," said Rick Bartleson, a water quality scientist with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. "It’s way more than the system downstream can take, and the freshwater plume goes well out into the Gulf of Mexico and kills organisms that can’t move out of the way. So we’re basically making a big dead zone when there are high flows like this."
These scenarios typically play out during the late summer and early fall, when few visitors are here.
Locals bear the brunt of the damages – lost beach time, no fish for dinner, crumbling home values – but this year a unique thing happened: flooding and bad water quality came during the tourism season.
A strong El Nino system brought record rains to much of the state in January, which caused federal and state water managers to release billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee water to the east and west coasts.
Water from the lake blew out the estuary – creating freshwater conditions – and eventually made its way north to Georgia.
Lee and Collier counties saw 11.54 inches of rain, which is 9.54 inches, or 577 percent, more than average for January, which is 2 inches, according to South Florida Water Management District records.
January is often a time when the Caloosahatchee is starved for water from Lake Okeechobee. Although the lake wasn't historically connected to the Caloosahatchee, the river sometimes needs flow from Okeechobee because the river's watershed – lands to the north and south of the river – have also been artificially drained.
Had El Nino not been in place, it's possible that local agencies and environmental groups would have pleaded with the Army Corps to release lake water, not store it or send it south.
Instead, upwards of 4 billion gallons a day of water was released to the river and its estuary.
By May, blue-green algae (also called cyanobacteria) started to bloom on the east side of the lake, and the bloom eventually made its way to the St.Lucie estuary via lake releases.
Conditions were so bad there that many people working on or near the water wore surgical masks, even gas masks.
Although some blooms are said to be harmless to humans, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said this bloom was extremely toxic.
But is it dangerous?
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says this about blue-green algae: "Recreational exposure by direct contact with a cyanobacteria bloom ... have been reported to cause hay fever-like symptoms and dermal reactions at high concentrations. Ingesting contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal distress (diarrhea, abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting). Low level chronic exposure of contaminants through water or fish have yet to be studied.
"Livestock and domestic animals can be poisoned by drinking contaminated water, and fish and bird deaths have been reported in Florida water bodies with persistent cyanobacteria blooms. It is important to remember these toxins have no known antidotes and cannot be removed by boiling."
Had the lake bloom been on the west side of the lake, Southwest Florida could have seen similar devastation, which is what happened a decade ago.
Sanibel residents galvanized to fight the excessive discharges and force the state and federal government to stop pollution at its source after a nasty outbreak in 2006.
"We’d go months on end where we’d see accumulations on our beaches as high as 2 or 3 feet, and that had a devastating impact on our economy because people who went to the beaches had to smell the drift algae," said James Evans, natural resources director for the City of Sanibel. "Normally, we have a no-raking policy; but when you have piles and piles of algae on the beaches it’s not providing a benefit to the shore birds."
A smaller freshwater bloom hit Cape Coral and the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River in July, forcing the city to close it's most popular swimming beach in July.
Brown-to-black, smelly waters have blanketed Lee County since January.
The organisms that cause algal blooms occur naturally but are fed by excess nutrients from farm lands and homes.
Water quality scientists say the amount of nitrogen flowing down the Caloosahatchee River each year is enough to fill about 600 freight train cars, or about 14 million pounds. And about 85 percent of the nutrients come from outside of Lee County, according to South Florida Water Management District reports.
Some home sales on the island have fallen through because of poor water quality (local Realtor Shane Spring said he lost a $6 million sale because of poor water quality), and a 2015 report from Florida Realtors says property values in Lee County have been suppressed by more than half a billion dollars due to poor water quality.
Guides and the fish they chase get hit by the bad water as well.
While tannins from broken-down vegetation are natural, when the tannins are so concentrated that it blocks out and kills marine life, it's not natural.
Seagrasses and oyster beds, which need a specific mixture of fresh and saltwater, died, and local fishing guides were forced to take clients 10 miles or more just to catch a few fish.
"If you depend on those resources to make a living and they’re depleted, it makes you worry about what your future is going to be like," Andrews said. "And most people that are guides, that's what they grew up doing and that’s all they know how to do."
Bubba Wade, a U.S. Sugar executive and former South Florida Water Management District governing board member, said there are ways to get rid of the excess water and prevent some of the damages to the estuaries.
Pumping water to what's known as the boulder zone could be an answer, he said. It's a common practice for utility plants.
"What you’re starting to see rising to the top is the deep well concept, put it down 3,000 or 4,000 feet and just get rid of it," Wade said. "From what I understand, all this volume (is) coming (from) north of the lake, you could put it down deep wells and get rid of 80 to 90 percent of the discharges. That would be a win-win because you could use those for the local basin runoff as well."
Deep well injection may or may not solve the high-flow end of the equation. But what will Southwest Florida do during droughts?
"In dry times you’d be like you always have been," he said. "You’d be struggling and people (homeowners and golf course managers) would go on restrictions and we (the farming industry) would go on restrictions."
For Andrews and others, though, there isn't time to wait on an answer that may or may not come over the next decade or so.
His answers: buy property and build water quality and storage projects. Southwest Florida has historically been one of the best coastal fishing spots in the world, and the public deserves to have that asset protected.
"It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s something you dedicate your life to," Andrews said. "You’re working on the boat until midnight and you don’t have family time and there’s tackle and your office is dying. Are you going to relocate or find a new job? I don’t know that it’s something we’ll see in the next year or two but it (finding a different job) could be reality soon."
Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Facebook.
The News-Press is publishing a series of water-issue stories leading up to the Market Watch: Save Our Water event on Wednesday.
TODAY: Volume and quality: The two main problems for the Caloosahatchee River and its estuaries are massive amounts of freshwater and the amount of nutrients such as nitrogen in that water.
FRIDAY: Water shortage? Even though we get nearly 5 feet of rain each year, our water table is dropping. Here’s why.
SATURDAY: Business impact: Keeping the river clean is good for business, say business folks along the river and beaches.
SUNDAY: Many people want the state to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee to help solve water woes, but the truth is land is needed in every direction.
MONDAY: Trouble blooms: Algae occurs naturally, but the frequency and duration of events is often tied to human activities.
TUESDAY: Lake link: The connection to Lake Okeechobee will not be severed soon because the watershed no longer naturally stores the water that would have normally been available during dry times.
WEDNESDAY: Taxpayers have paid billions over the years on a water system that is still a financial drain.