April 9, 2016
$600M reservoir could hurt rather than help, scientists say
By Chad Gillis
Top water quality scientists says the reservoir will turn into a massive algal bloom.
It was supposed to help our river and estuaries but could end up hurting them with toxic algae.
And now some scientists say the $600 million C-43 project to store water for dry season could be a waste of money because it won’t clean water and the dirty water it stores could grow far worse as it festers under the Florida sun in shallow pools.
Also, some scientists worry that releasing that water into the river could violate the Clean Water Act standards, which basically say it’s illegal to move pollution from one property or water body to another. And U.S. Rep Curt Clawson, R-Bonita Springs, who recently waded in with a new water bill, says spending money on water storage isn’t necessarily bad, but doesn’t address the key problem: dirty water.
The Caloosahatchee reservoir will take another decade to complete, according to the South Florida Water Management District. But one of the world’s top water quality scientists says the reservoir will turn into a massive algal bloom that could become more of a hindrance than a help.
“I can predict 100 percent that that’s going to happen,” said William Mitsch, a Florida Gulf Coast University professor and world-renowned marine scientist. “You’re talking about the same water Lake Okeechobee has released, and you’re going to put it in a shallow basin. With shallow lakes, with all the nutrients we have in the water, it’s not a good idea.”
State engineers, however, say that although algal blooms can happen in any freshwater system, the reservoir will be dynamic, rising and falling as it captures and releases water. “We will measure nutrients in the reservoir, and if we see problems with the water we will address it,” said Ernie Marks, Everglades projects manager for the South Florida Water Management District. Marks joined the district in March. “Our hope is that we don’t see those kinds of conditions.”
But Mitsch isn’t the only scientist in Southwest Florida with concerns about the reservoir and what it will look and function like in 2026, when it’s scheduled to be completed. “I agree with (Mitsch): there may be clean water limitations,” said John Cassani, a retired biologist and chair of the Southwest Florida Watershed Council. “Even if you capture it and store it, there are questions about if you can legally release it.”
Cassani has followed Everglades restoration in his professional career as a biologist and, more recently, as an activist for the council, a nonprofit clean water advocacy group that formed in 2001.
The doubts over the reservoir come at a bad time, about 10 weeks after heavy January rains flooded most of the state. Immediately after the rain, much of the freshwater flowing down the river was from development north and south of the river. Lake Okeechobee was opened to its full capacity in February, sending billions of gallons a day of lake water to the coast, where waters have run brown.
South Florida was built and designed to send freshwater to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico as fast as possible. Storing water on the landscape (which stored the water for free before development) is one way to keep coastal estuaries healthy while also sending vital freshwater to Florida Bay. Releases from water storage areas could be good for the estuary because they provide enough freshwater to get that magic brackish mix in coastal areas. During the rainy season, estuary waters can run too fresh; during droughts, they get too salty from intrusion of sea water.
The main goal of the reservoir is to provide freshwater to the Caloosahatchee estuary during extremely dry conditions. It was never designed to clean water like a filter marsh, a natural or man-made wetland. “Basically the reservoir becomes a new lake with all the chemical and biological dynamics of a lake without the effect of bottom sediments such that exist in Lake Okeechobee,” John Capece, who holds an agriculture engineering doctorate from the University of Florida and is director of the Caloosahatchee River Citizen Association, told The News-Press in an email. “The total mass of nitrogen or phosphorus will increase while in the reservoir.”
Under that scenario it may be illegal to release water from the reservoir because the water would be dirtier after storage than it was when first captured, which could violate the Clean Water Act. Those fertilizers fuel algal blooms in the river and along the coast and can feed and extend the life of red tide (Karenia brevis).
Poor water quality in Southwest Florida has been proven to hold down or even decrease home and property values. A Florida Realtors report says Lee County’s overall property value would be $500 million more than it is today if local waters were clear.
Florida Bay has lost about 50,000 acres of sea grass in the past few months due to poor water quality there. Sea grass and oyster beds have died off in the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary as well. Well-balanced estuaries are nurseries for many kinds of sea life, including game fish.
Fishing captains say there is little bait swimming in the water, and that most anglers are going 20 miles or farther in search of clean, fish-filled waters. Boating that far takes time, and travel time takes away from fishing because most trips are scheduled for a four- or eight-hour period.
“This is the time of year when we make most of our money for the year,” said Josh Constantine, owner of Caloosahatchee Cowboy Charters out of Punta Rassa. “I’ve fished snook here all my life, but now I can’t catch one.”
Clawson recently filed a bill that would set aside $500 million to buy some farm lands south of Lake Okeechobee. While not speaking specifically about the Caloosahatchee Reservoir, Clawson said water storage projects won’t be as effective as buying land for a flow-way and reservoir to send water south to the parched sections of Everglades National Park.
Clawson said storing water is fine but that it doesn’t address the larger problem, cleaning up waters throughout most of the district.
He compared our local water quality needs with those in Florida Bay.
“It’s crazy to me to have dirty water here, too much freshwater here while seagrass dies in Florida Bay south of the Everglades,” Clawson said Wednesday. “We have too much and they don’t have enough, and in the meantime we keep building storage pots where the water just gets nasty anyway.”