October 26, 2016
Caloosahatchee River summit draws hundreds to discuss Lake Okeechobee releases
Eric Staats, USA TODAY NETWORK — FLORIDA
Caloosahatchee River water quality concerns drew hundreds of people to a daylong summit Wednesday to hear — and often debate — ways to protect one of Southwest Florida’s most important natural assets.
Some 400 people — fishermen, farmers, hoteliers, environmentalists, Realtors — attended the “Save Our Water” event sponsored jointly by The News-Press and the Naples Daily News at the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort and Spa.
The mood was set early as the event began with attendees standing and calling out in unison the message on the placards they held in the air: “Save Our Water!”
The Caloosahatchee, like the St. Lucie River on the state’s east coast, acts as a relief valve for Lake Okeechobee when water in the lake gets too high and risks breaching a levee that protects farming communities on the lake’s southern edge.
Those discharges have been blamed for choking the St. Lucie estuary with guacamole-thick algae blooms and sending plumes of brown water into the Caloosahatchee estuary, upsetting the balance of fresh and salt water, killing sea grasses and oyster beds and chasing away fish and crabs.
This year has been particularly devastating, as heavy rains already have sent 55 percent more water into the lake than in all of 2015, prompting weeks of ongoing discharges.
“It’s enough to make a grown man cry, shameful, and it should be criminal,” said Sanibel Island Realtor David Schuldenfrei, a member of a panel discussion Wednesday.
But not all, not even most, of the water coming down the Caloosahatchee comes from the lake, according to figures cited by speakers at Wednesday’s summit.
Engineer Gary Goforth cited figures that 36 percent of river flows since 1971 have come from Lake Okeechobee, with 63 percent coming from off land north and south of the river’s stretch through Lee County.
Regardless of where it comes from, though, 50 percent of the time, the river’s man-altered watershed means flows are either too low or too high to sustain a healthy ecosystem, Goforth said.
The solution, almost everyone agrees, is to build huge reservoirs along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and north and south of Lake Okeechobee to control flows so they more closely mimic nature.
Such reservoirs are not cheap. The Caloosahatchee River reservoir, known as the C43, would be built in Hendry County and cost $600 million to store 55 billion gallons of water.
Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is pitching a plan to set aside $2.4 billion in state conservation money to buy sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee and build a reservoir to store water.
The road map for Everglades restoration calls for starting construction on the reservoir south of the lake in 2021.
Critics have said the state is not acting quickly enough to buy the land from U.S. Sugar.
U.S. Sugar Vice President Bubba Wade told the summit the proposed reservoir would be too small to make a worthwhile dent in the volume of water being sent to the estuaries in years like 2016.
“If you think you’re going to solve the estuary problem in these wet years, it’s not going to happen,” Wade said.
He said the focus should be on completing parts of Everglades restoration already on the books and finding places to store water north of the lake.
Sierra Club organizer Cris Costello said storage north of the lake is a “red herring” — as is blaming pollution on septic systems along the river and raising concerns that sending water south from the lake would flood endangered sparrow habitat in the Everglades, she said.
“We have to keep our eyes on the prize,” Costello said, referring to the reservoir south of the lake. “We cannot let ourselves be distracted.”
Conservancy of Southwest Florida natural resources policy director Jennifer Hecker said plans for a reservoir south of the lake should be expedited and planned at the same time as storage north of the lake.
“Whether it’s a little or a lot, we need it all,” Hecker said.
Hecker drew cheers when she called on all sides of the Caloosahatchee River water quality issues to work together to find solutions.
Schuldenfrei, the Sanibel real estate agent, echoed Hecker.
“We all have to stay involved,” he said. “When water is nice and blue and we’re happy, nothing happens. We have to keep the fire burning.”