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Lake O increased releases: a healthy decision

February 11, 2014
By BOB PETCHER ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

One week after a local clean water rally and less than two weeks before a planned rally in the state capitol, an increased flow of regulatory freshwater releases have been discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee.

Right in time for tourism season.

But, don't believe every thing you see or hear. Last week, when the Army Corps of Engineers reportedly increased its regulatory releases by a considerable level, then made a decision on Friday to maintain an increased flow beginning Saturday, it was a sound one, says Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen.

The Town's scientist says the salinities in the upper estuaries have been too high, and more freshwater is needed to counter-balance.

"Right now, we are very pleased with the Corps decision on the current releases and hope it can restore some of that freshwater balance in the upper estuaries to help regenerate some of the tape grass that got heavily impacted over the past few years," he said. "We have to think about the system as a whole, which includes the freshwater part of the river east of Fort Myers and the downstream impacts.

"The 650 cubic feet per second (cfs) they had been giving us has not been sufficient to keep the Caloosahatchee River below the minimum flow level violation standard of 10 parts per thousand. Anything above 10 psu (practical salinity units) is recognized as causing significant harm to the estuary, especially in the tape grass."

Increased flows during this time of year are part of the norm to regulate lake water levels ahead of rainy season. But due to an earlier rainy start and an overabundance of rain last summer, the long-standing water quality issue was elevated after increased freshwater releases began sooner and were higher than normal.

Last Friday's decision resulted in the Corps adjusting the target flow from the lake to the Caloosahatchee Estuary upward to a 10-day average of 1,000 cfs as measured at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam (S-79) near Fort Myers, according to an online report by Corps' Public Affairs Specialist John Campbell. Local runoff outside the lake into the Caloosahatchee River could cause flows to exceed this target.

"We're hoping that the 1,000 cfs number can help push the salinity wedge further downstream to fight off some of that salinity from the Gulf of Mexico," said Laakkonen, who is involved in weekly conference calls with the Corps, Southwest Florida Water Management District officials, colleagues from Sanibel and Lee County, Audubon Society officials, various National Wildlife Refuge officials, state agencies and similar folks from the east coast of Florida.

"The lake has seen a one-quarter foot rise in the past week and the most current analysis of forecasted conditions show an increase to projected lake inflows over the next six months," said Lt. Col. Tom Greco, the Corps' Jacksonville District Deputy Commander for South Florida. "We'll continue to work with stakeholders to assess conditions in order to make sound operational decisions."

The current "pulse" releases mimic what a natural rainfall would be and are crucial for the water management and lowering of the lake level during the course of the year, which includes dry season typically in April and May and rainy season typically from late June through October.

"When they do have the operational flexibility to make decisions about the how much water they can give us, that's when the stakeholders have the ability to maybe ask for more flexibility, like right now," said Laakkonen.

Rally officials, who gathered at Alliance of the Arts on Feb. 1, are planning on a "Rally in Tally" to campaign for a clean water declaration on the steps of the old Capitol in Tallahassee on Feb. 18. Activists say that too much freshwater mixing with saltwater causes water pollution and offer photos of a murky, oil-like, brown-colored water against traditional green-blue Gulf water as proof.

Laakkonen says our Beach waters shouldn't be affected as bad with the current increased flows.

"This past summer, there was so much organic matter in the water and that was really causing stress to those tape grasses in the upper estuaries," he said. "We are going to get more (color) than we are getting currently, but it certainly won't be of the same deep, dark colors that were much more nutrient-laden this past summer," he said. "The average of 1,000 cfs is likely a healthy number for the Caloosahatchee during winter."

Since Oct. 21, 2013, the target flow from the Franklin Lock had been 650 cfs and the target flow from the St. Lucie Lock has been 0 cfs, according to the Corps. SFWMD continues to move water south through the Stormwater Treatment Areas to the Water Conservation Areas.

Last Friday, the lake stage was 14.02 feet and has been on an upward trend since Jan. 30. The releases are being conducted in accordance with the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). The current LORS guidance allows for releases up to 3,000 cfs at Franklin Lock and 1,170 cfs at St. Lucie Lock. However, at this time the current target flows are being adjusted out of consideration for all project purposes.

Estuaries require a balance of fresh and salt water, depend on nutrients and support an abundance of sea life, said Roland Ottolini, a civil engineering expert in water pollution control and water conservation, in October 2013.

"Our estuary out there is very important. It has national and state significance and is very important to our economy," he said. "Unfortunately, we do not have a natural system. It is subjected to a lot of extremes because it is a managed system."

Sending discharges south used to be the approach, but it's more difficult now.

"The historic route and desire is to send it south, but now we have what was hundreds of miles wide has now been shortened out to narrow canals. We also have a lot of agriculture and communities now," said Ottolini. "There is also a federal court order that says you can't send dirty water to the Everglades National Park. There are a lot of environmental considerations."

Solutions involve storing and conveying more water. Long-term projects are being looked into, such as Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir (designed to hold 170,000 acre feet of water), Central Everglades Planning Project (reconnect Lake O south with Everglades National Park, but water needs to be treated/clean) and the restoration of Herbert Hoover Dike (to enhance structural integrity and provide additional storage).



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