October 25, 2016
Altered, ailing river at center of ecology, economy
Water flowed slowly from Lake Hicpochee to the Gulf of Mexico for thousands of years, meandering through winding oxbows and a vast, natural filtration system.
The trees, aquatic vegetation, massive oyster bars and seagrass beds cleansed the water of any impurities, and water along the beaches was clear as gin.
Rae Ann Wessel, with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, wrote this about the river:
"Water would settle first in Lake Hicpochee, then Lettuce Lake and Bonnet Lake, until it reached, Lake Flirt above the Caloosahatchee valley. At the western end of Lake Flirt a rock formation created a quarter mile of rapids which fed the Caloosahatchee. Below the falls, the Caloosahatchee was a crooked, winding river that slowed the flow and provided natural filtration as the water moved slowly downriver."
Yes, the Caloosahatchee had rapids and waterfalls, but all that splendor began to fade after developers cut a canal through Hicpochee in order to drain Lake Okeechobee and the historic Everglades to make way for farming and development.
Today the river functions mostly as a canal, a way to get water and excess nutrients off the upstream landscape as quick as possible. It works, too well at times. Now, the focus is on undoing damages inflicted over the past century Ė reversing the past water management strategy in favor of cleaner water.
But it will take plenty of planning, money and political will to get that done. And that means it's not likely the Caloosahatchee will be unhooked from Lake O anytime soon. That's bad news for those living and playing downriver.
"The Caloosahatchee has two issues: we have too much water and too little water," said James Evans, Sanibel's natural resources director. "When weíre receiving too much we can see impacts to the sea grass beds as well as the oysters and our local economy when it comes to the quality and color of water along our beaches."
More than 11 million pounds of nitrogen comes down the river each year, and blue-green algal blooms are a regular occurrence.
The vast majority of nutrients come from outside of Lee County.
"A lot of the loading is from the east of us," said Roland Ottolini, Lee County's natural resources director. "(Florida Department of Environmental Protection data) shows about 85 percent is coming from east of the (W.P.) Franklin Lock (and Dam), but 15 percent is coming from here so we have our fair share of work to do."
So while half or more of the water coming to the estuary may very well be local rainfall, the nutrients are largely coming from the upper reaches of the river, Lake Okeechobee and beyond.
Storing water that drains west of Lake Okeechobee but east of the Caloosahatchee Estuary, which is mostly Hendry County, is part of the Everglades restoration.
The C43 reservoir, also called the Caloosahatchee reservoir, will cost about $600 million and will hold 170,000 acre-feet, or about 55 billion gallons, of water. It's the largest Everglades project for Lee and Hendry.
"A good portion of the water we receive does come from the Caloosahatchee watershed, on average about 50 percent," said Evans, the Sanibel official. "So we need to complete the C43 reservoir but we also need to look at additional storage in the area between the Moore Haven lock and between the Ortona Lock"
The costs don't stop after building reservoirs and water quality projects. Lee County spends $300 million a year on filter marshes alone.
These marshes are re-creations of wetland systems that are designed to address the issues found in the downstream waterbodies. Designing, building and maintaining these man-made wetlands is costly as well.
Nitrogen is problematic in the Caloosahatchee River, but it's not a scenario in which the county can throw technology or money at the problem and watch it go away.
"Thereís not a lot of science thatís put in nitrogen removal in overall larger projects of treating stormwater," Ottolini said "Nitrogen is not as easy to remove (as some other nutrients), and itís a function of being able to retain the water, allow those nutrients to be uptaken by the plants we install and maintaining that system."
Impacts from nitrogen range from algae blooms to fish kills to losses in real estate values.
The poor water quality hits beach islands like Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach hard because people come there largely to play on or near the water.
"The color of water can impact peopleís ability to enjoy beaches but the color of the water can also impact sea grasses, which are important to our fishery," Evans said. "What you donít see is the change of salinity. When itís too low that can have an impact on the sea grasses, the oysters and a lot of our important estaurine fishes respond to the salinities as well. And that has an impact."
The estuary gets harmed when flows through the Franklin Lock and Dam get to 2,8000 cubic feet per second. Flows this year have been at 7,000 cubic feet per second and higher.
At the southern end of the system, tens of thousands of acres of seagrasses died this year because of a lack of freshwater.
"The bottom line is we need a very large amount of storage throughout the system Ė north, south, east and west," Evans said. "We need to store that water and treat that water and convey it down to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. Florida Bay is starving for freshwater now."
Florida Bay is downstream of Lake Okeechobee, too, and this is where the giant freshwater flows went, historically. Today it's impossible to send large amounts of water to the bay because the water doesn't meet federal water quality standards for Everglades National Park.
So what can the average resident or homeowner do to help fix the problems?
"Source control is something the general public can handle," Ottolini said. "Itís their (the public's) responsibility to fertilize smart. Donít put them down during the rainy season because thatís when we have the most rain and donít put anymore than the grass can uptake. And donít spread it near water bodies. And pick up after your pets."
In the end, Evans said he and others are simply asking that the adversities be shared by all of South Florida.
"Itís not the coastal communities versus the inland agriculture communities," Evans said. "But the Caloosahatchee is receiving the lionís share of flow. Weíve been getting more than 50 percent this year and that is unequitable and something that needs to be fixed."
And what of Lake Hicpochee and the rapids?
Part of Lake Hicpochee will be restored by the South Florida Water Management District ($18.4 million), but the rapids were permanently removed when the river was channelized.
SAVE OUR WATER
What: The News-Press Media Group is hosting an educational and engaging summit focusing on the water quality crisis in Southwest Florida. Experts from around the region and state will speak on a variety of topics, a moderated panel representing agriculture, tourism, business, U.S. Sugar and real estate will discuss the economic impacts, and we will unveil five unique water-themed experiences so the learning can continue beyond the summit.
Live coverage: You can follow live coverage on news-press.com
Twitter: Join the conversation using #saveourwater
More coverage: www.newspr.es/SaveOurWater
The News-Press is publishing a series of water-issue stories leading up to the Market Watch: Save Our Water event on Wednesday.
TODAY: 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.
COMING WEDNESDAY: Taxpayers have paid billions over the years on a water system that is still a financial drain.
THURSDAY: 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. Hereís 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.