Lake Okeechobee releases hurt local ecosystems
Lee County residents can expect to see brown water, dead marine life and sea grass pileups on local beaches thanks to the recent releases of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Estuary.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing 3.7 billion gallons of water into the Caloosahatchee from Lake Okeechobee daily since Friday, Feb. 5 in an effort to keep the Hoover Dike from breaking and flooding surrounding towns.
“If that dike were to collapse it’d be catastrophic,” said FGCU Professor Donald Duke, whose focus is environmental sciences and policy. “They really did have to care for that.”
Duke said the releases are necessary because of the way humans have been moving water around Florida for about 80 years.
“The way we move water around is completely managed. There are human decisions on where water goes all around South Florida,” Duke said. “Lake Okeechobee functions as a big reservoir that impairs its ability to be the big natural system that we’d also like it to be.”
The USACE usually releases water from Lake Okeechobee after the wet season, but the El Nino weather system moving through Florida led to historically high rain levels in January, which forced them to start the process in the middle of the dry season. Even as water is released from the Lake, the water level is still above 16 feet. While tourists may be concerned that the water in Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach has turned brown because of the releases, Duke said that the brown color is natural for freshwater.
“It’s not that the freshwater is a horrible thing, but it’s horrible if you’re an organism that only lives in saltwater. It could really mess up the beaches,” Duke said.
The water that was released from Lake Okeechobee also included water that was pumped into the Lake from surrounding farms in January.
The mayors of Estero, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs, Cape Coral and Sanibel are scheduled to meet Feb. 10 to discuss the damage the water has done to the local economy and ecosystems. They also plan to ask the state and the federal government for money toward relief efforts.
Duke was not sure what the money would be used for, but he thinks it could be used for beach clean-ups.
“It’d be a better choice to use that money for a long-term solution like improving the dike or improving the water distribution system, but that wouldn’t solve our problem for this year,” Duke said.
Duke said Florida’s water problem is a complicated one that has been 80 years in the making. He said it is difficult to find a solution to the flooding problem that would not negatively affect either Florida’s agriculture, urban systems in Florida or local ecosystems.
“The real solution to this problem is decades long, many many dollars and will involve a lot of compromise,” Duke said. “There are a lot of smart people working on this.”
El Nino is expected to cause unusually high amounts of rain for the next two months. Water releases are expected to continue for at least the next several weeks to lower the water levels in Lake Okeechobee before the rainy season begins in June.