As polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee continues to rush down the Caloosahatchee River, dark dirty water and algae blooms plague the estuary and beaches and threaten our greatest economic engine – tourism. Many of you may be experiencing the ripple effects first hand.
- Seagrass is lost:Seagrass is a main source of food for juvenile fish and manatees. Seagrass dies when the water’s salinity swings outside of natural ranges. The salinity changes when the river is subjected to harmfully high or insufficient water flows.
- Sport fishing industry suffers: Juvenile fish die as a result of poor water quality, less habitat and lower oxygen levels in the water caused by pollution and nutrient-fueled algae outbreaks. Fewer juvenile fish means fewer game fish.
- Mass oyster die offs:Water conditions become lethal for oysters – an important economic resource that also serve as habitat for many marine species, and are important for overall water quality.
- Tourism and real estate industry suffers:Large amounts of pollution that result in visible green, toxic algae close area beaches and make local waterways unsafe for swimming and fishing.
Image taken during flight with LightHawk
When water levels get too high in Lake Okeechobee, water which historically flowed to the Everglades, is now discharged to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries. The excess freshwater and pollution creates unnatural salinity levels and fuels algae blooms which can harm or kill aquatic life. The toxins produced by some of the harmful algae blooms can also pose serious public health risks.
Inversely, in the dry season, the Caloosahatchee is often cut off from any flows from the Lake, causing the river to stagnate; some portions even flow backward at times. The alternating mismanagement of either too much or too little flow combined with pollution is destroying the Caloosahatchee River and estuary, the basis of the region’s tourism-based economy.
|NEEDED STATE AND FEDERAL ACTIONS|
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
The Caloosahatchee River was connected years ago to Lake Okeechobee through an artificial dredged canal in order to divert water previously flowing south of the Lake to the Everglades. This was done to enhance navigational channels and create the Everglades Agricultural Area, an area of the former Everglades that was drained to be used for large-scale sugar cane production by agribusinesses.
Lake Okeechobee’s outlets are now constrained to a few small canals instead of the former large flowway south of the lake. Thus, when lake levels get too deep, water has to be discharged east to the St. Lucie and west to the Caloosahatchee instead of flowing south.
In addition, nutrient pollution (from sewage, fertilizer, manure, etc.) has reached unsafe levels throughout Florida due to urban and agricultural runoff. Agriculture and developments are also not being required to adequately retain and treat runoff on-site. Lack of compliance and enforcement has resulted in too much pollution getting into waterways and flowing downstream.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida advocates for a comprehensive approach to restore clean appropriate flows to the Caloosahatchee and the Everglades. We advocate for science-based solutions that would benefit the environment and the public health and safety of all of communities in South Florida.
The following actions are needed to fix this water crisis:
- Authorize the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir in the federal 2018 Water Resources Development Act to expedite the funding and construction of a critical missing piece of the restoration puzzle to help reduce the harmful discharges and send clean water south
- Retain and treat more water within the Caloosahatchee watershed
- Protect remaining natural wetlands and flowways in order to maintain existing natural storage and treatment capacity
- Control pollution at its source
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida created an Estuaries Report Card to evaluate the 10 watersheds in our region. Learn about the water in your area and actions individuals and lawmakers can take to help improve water quality. We’ve also created a interactive webpage about the harmful algae blooms, the causes, impacts and solutions.