Water management practices are continuing to be heavily questioned and debated on both sides of the Florida coastline due to several weeks of high flow regulatory discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River.
Southwest Florida saltwater estuaries are feeling the effects of the infused freshwater, which is causing oysters, sea grasses and other plant life to suffer as well as fish to relocate to deeper, unaffected waters.
Our aqua-blue Gulf and Back Bay have turned to a coffee-brown, brackish color.
Many protesters gathered on the Sanibel causeway for the Save Our Bay rally. A Florida Senate Select Committee held a hearing on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin last week. There are hopes that high flow regulatory discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River will be reduced in the future.
Beach Mayor Alan Mandel attended a Florida Senate Select Committee hearing on water quality issues in Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin in Stuart last Thursday. The eight-hour workshop, which acted as a fact-finding mission, explored short-term solutions or alternatives to reduce or eliminate current releases from Lake O. The committee was comprised of eight members of the Florida Senate chosen by President Don Gaetz and included Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Southwest Florida.
"(Chairman) Sen. Negron really challenged all of the technical experts," said Mandel. "The basic challenge was although we know what we can do five to 20 years on the horizon, what can we do immediately to relieve the situation."
Water storage facilities, their capacities and land to purchase additional watersheds is being looked into. Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane testified at the hearing and, according to a City of Sanibel website (www.sanibelh2omatters.com), expressed an "urgent need for the U.S. Army Corps and South Florida Water Management District to consider all short- and long-term storage options, the necessity of securing federal funding for the C-43 West Basin Reservoir Project and other long-term solutions" as well as "the importance of immediate ecological monitoring to determine the full impacts on the Caloosahatchee estuary."
The water quality in the bay waters and along the beachfront is affecting tourism -the much-needed lifeline of Fort Myers Beach and surrounding area. To that end, Mandel offered public comment by the end of the hearing.
"My concern was they need to have a large marketing fund, giving the comments we are hearing at resorts and hotels to counter what has happened down here," he said. "Sen. Benacquisto called me on Saturday, thanked me for making that comment and promised that she would work with some of the big guns at Visit Florida to create that."
"I thought that the Senate Select Committee hearing was a great time for committee members to hear directly from those affected by the current releases, including Southwest Floridians who spoke about the state of the Caloosahatchee River," said Benacquisto through an emailed response. "The Caloosahatchee deserves a meaningful and lasting plan of action to preserve the natural resources that help make Southwest Florida a great place to work, live and raise a family. As a member of the Senate Select Committee I will continue to work for solutions and push stakeholders to fund and build the projects we need to protect our economy and way of life."
The select committee will conduct workshops and prepare a report to be submitted to the Senate Committees on Appropriations, Environmental Preservation and Conservation, and Agriculture by Nov. 4.
"The select committee will work toward distilling all of the information gathered into an action plan that will consist of both projects to fund next session as well as policies that may need to be implemented or changed to allow for a lasting solution. That means slowing or stopping the releases from Lake Okeechobee as well as addressing the water quality problems throughout the system," said Benacquisto.
"For Southwest Florida my goal is to build upon the success we had last session thanks to the hard work of Representative Caldwell and others so that water vital water storage and cleanup projects get moving so that the river and estuary can fully recover.
The report will feature recommendations that the Legislature will consider during the 2014 Legislative Session.
"I will be working to make sure the Caloosahatchee River is not overlooked and gets the attention and resources it deserves throughout this process," said Benacquisto."
Last week, the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce surveyed accommodation businesses on the Beach to help determine the impact of the Lake O discharge and resultant water quality issue. The survey, filled out by 40 businesses, focused on four central questions: "Have you had questions from guests regarding the water quality of the Gulf or Bay?" (95% answered yes); "Have you had cancellations or guests leaving early because of the water issue?" (63% answered yes); "Have you had guests indicate they will not return because of the water issue?" (60% answered yes); and "Have you suffered a financial loss because of the water issue?" (59% answered yes).
"Unlike the BP oil spill problem, which was dealing with misconceptions down here, we now have a tangible problem where people are checking out of hotels and resorts and going home," said Mandel.
The negative impact on our waterways has also caused rallies and public outcry. Residents of Southwest Florida, including Fort Myers Beach, attended the "Save Our Bay" rally on a Sanibel causeway this past Saturday. The combined group held signs and shouted various chants (see page 4 and page 32). A larger rally combining Florida's east and west coast residents will occur in Clewiston this Saturday.
Save Our Bay rally organizer Jonathan Tongyai, who is president of the Sanibel-Captiva Kiwanis Club, said the water quality has been the worst he's ever seen since moving to the nearby island in 1972. The rally's intention was to grab the attention of politicians and demand they find a solution to the problem.
"Everywhere I go people are talking about it and they're upset about it. The only way we're going to get the attention of the politicians is to make sure they know their voters are angry," he said.
Mandel also stated all Southwest Florida residents should contact their State and Federal officials through calls, emails and letters. If a visitor is discouraged to fish, swim or even view a paradise scenario without clear water, that person and their family may be discouraged to return.
"The Florida Senate hearing showed that lawmakers are considering what should be done on both sides of the state," he said. "We, in turn, should be very receptive to this and get our thoughts across to members of the House of Representatives."
Last Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott announced that the Corps will be reducing the release flow by as much as 57 percent. Forty million dollars is also being committed towards the completion of the C-44 Storm Water Treatment Area, a reservoir and treatment zone designed to reduce nutrients, pesticides, and suspended materials from runoff into St. Lucie County.
According to Scott, the lack of federal funding has been the blame for bad water quality. The State and Federal government have a 50/50 cost sharing agreement for South Florida environmental projects, yet the state has invested $2.5 billion and the federal government only $989 million. Scott says they owe $1.6 billion in local investments.
Diane Holm, public information officer for the Lee County Health Department, stated weekly tests on water quality at various County beaches have shown no threats, and there have not been any recent health advisories pertaining to water quality issued on Fort Myers Beach. Swimming is still safe as far as bacteria levels are concerned.
"We test 13 beaches every week on Monday," she said. "We test for enterococcus, a potentially harmful bacteria in the water. So far, the tests have not indicated poor water quality."
For example, the testing during the weeks dated Aug. 12 and 19 at Lynn Hall Park have yielded "good" results (0 to 35 enterococcus per 100 milliliter of marine water), while a test on Aug. 5 at that site resulted in a "moderate" (36-104) rating.
Results for each Monday test are posted 24 hours later on Tuesday afternoons. Anyone can learn more about which beaches are tested and check results from each test. Go to www.leechd.com and click on "beach water status" under public health information.