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The Impact of Lake Okeechobee Discharges on the Caloosahatchee, Estero Bay and Lovers Key

Franklin Lock and Dam, Alva, Caloosahtachee River

Franklin Lock and Dam, Alva, Caloosahtachee River

When Takoda, John Moran and I first arrived at the Franklin Lock and Dam, things looked innocent enough. Although we were pretty miserable because it was in the middle of the day and just shy of 100 degrees, we saw tiny mangrove plants trying to take hold and there was no cyanobacteria anywhere.  Then we decided to walk out on the lock to the middle of the river.

Lake Okeechobee Discharges Flooding the Caloosahatchee River under the Franklin Locks at Alva

Lake Okeechobee Discharges Flooding the Caloosahatchee River under the Franklin Locks at Alva

We were there to visit John Cassini, but we had inadvertently gone to the locks on the wrong side of the river. While we were waiting for John to come to our side, we tried to figure out what was happening.  At first we though there wasn't much water coming through since it wasn't pouring over in a tumultuous fashion as it had at the St. Lucie locks. Yet, later when John arrived and we asked him how much water was in fact passing through, he said it was quite a lot, about 300 cfus.

In fact, the following information was recently posted about the discharges to the Caloosahatchee by the City of Sanibel: 

"As of August 10, 2016, the elevation of Lake Okeechobee was 14.72 feet. Click here to see the Current Level of Lake Okeechobee. The Lake level is currently 2.44 feet higher than it was at this time last year and approximately 0.45 feet higher than it was in 2014.  In response to rising Lake levels associated with a strong El Niño, the Army Corps has been conducting high-volume regulatory releases from Lake Okeechobee since the last week in January 2016. Lake discharges combined with heavy rainfall within the Caloosahatchee watershed have resulted in flows to the Caloosahatchee averaging 5,228 cubic feet per second (cfs) from February 1 to July 11, 2016.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers target flows to the Caloosahatchee remain at 2,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) measured at the Franklin Lock (S-79). However, because of local rainfall within the Caloosahatchee watershed, actual flows during the past week averaged 3,171 cfs at S-79, with approximately 23% of the flows coming from Lake Okeechobee. Since January, freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee estuary have been above the 2,800 cfs high-flow harm threshold established by water managers." (Visit this site for more information: http://www.mysanibel.com/Departments/Natural-Resources/Protecting-Our-Water-Quality/Sanibel-H2O-Matters)

When I was in this very same area a couple of years ago, I saw many invasive plants taking over the river, blocked oxbows, a weird yellow brown color to the river, and other telltale signs of impairment..  However, there was some visibility.   Now there is virtually none. 

The Dark Waters of the Caloosahatchee

The Dark Waters of the Caloosahatchee

When I looked closely at the patterns in the way, I noticed such large quantities of water were being moved from below that mini white caps were being created.  This kind of discharge is much more insidious.  The darkness did not look good either.  It was almost like black tar, although I knew it was not viscous like that.   John later told me that the Everglades and the Caloosahatchee have large concentrations of iron which creates "brownification."   The tannin binds with the iron molecules and the water turns even browner.  This dark brown water has traveled as far as the keys and John said Florida Bay, with its black water, is all dead now.  This is truly tragic and I realized it has happened all in my lifetime and in the last half of my life.  When I was in college, we used to travel to the keys and swim and snorkel in blue water over abundant coral reefs.  For someone who began testing water quality in high school, I wondered how my generation could have let this happen.

Sugar, the Bane of Florida's Waterways

Sugar, the Bane of Florida's Waterways

It is the sugar industry, plain and simple, that is causing this problem no matter what politicians tell you.  Of course orange groves and cattle and other large scale agricultural operations are harming the environment too, especially when they are not following best practices by reducing the use of fertilizers.  Although other farming operations, people with lawns, and nearby towns all allow runoff to seep into drainage canals and/or the river, the nutrient rich waters of Lake Okeechobee, which are that way due to pollution from the sugar industry, seem to have the worst impact on our waterways hands down.  I know this from empirical evidence.  Any waterway touched by Lake Okeechobee discharges is seriously compromised.  Though others have problems, there is truly no comparison.  John Cassini told us that in an average year 61 percent of the nitrogen in the Caloosahatcee River comes from Lake Okeechobee.  The water of rivers, estuaries, or bays receiving water from Lake Okeechobee is either orange, dark brown, or filled with blue-green cyanobacteria.  Some of the cleaner waters I have witnessed are in Sarasota Bay, the Matanzas River, and Blue Springs,  far away from Lake Okeechobee discharges.

Cutting a Fishing Line to Toss a Toxic Catfish Back into Lake Okeechobee

Cutting a Fishing Line to Toss a Toxic Catfish Back into Lake Okeechobee

It seems that catfish, alligators, and weird armored spiders are going to be the creatures that will survive the toxicity we are introducing into our waterways.  Over the weekend, we saw several people fishing but nobody we saw kept anything they caught.  I was relieved that  it seemed they were fishing for sport instead of dinner, or at least that the fishermen were being discriminating. Any bottom dwelling river fish was bound to be chock full of toxins.  Frankly, I wouldn't eat any fish at any time that came from these waters and I wasn't even sure if it was safe to touch a fish.  I wanted to tell the children we saw fishing at the St. Lucie locks not to even be out there because they were breathing the air, but I suspected they were teenagers and wouldn't listen to me.

Big Alligator, Lake Okeechobee

Big Alligator, Lake Okeechobee

Alligators still seem to be thriving in Lake Okeechobee, or at least that is where the biggest ones can still be found.  Though the alligators seen in the Everglades frequently seem to be stunted and/or look like they are starving, there still appear to be large ones in Lake Okeechobee.  In fact in April of this year a 15-foot 800 pound alligator was caught and killed.  John Cassini told me that the biodiversity of South Florida's waterways has been rapidly changing in the last 15 years.  The animal and plant composition in this part of the state is changing statistically and terrestrially, and the quality of life is getting worse.  Everyone who is running for office in this area is running on the environmental issues and specifically water quality, yet not everyone can be believed.

Mangrove Islands in Estero Bay Near Lovers Key

Mangrove Islands in Estero Bay Near Lovers Key

With a name like Lovers Key and with so many mangrove islands, I would have thought the water would have been okay here.  However, the Caloosahatchee River dumps into the Gulf about 3 miles from Estero Bay, a State Aquatic Preserve.  This is not good news for the bay.  After discussing the Caloosahatchee River issues with John Cassini, John Moran and I went and checked into a hotel near Lovers Key.  The following day we canoed to Mound Island, since we were interested in seeing this archeological site.  On the way there, we passed by many mangrove islands.  I kept thinking we'd see lots of birds, but all we saw were a few pelicans.  When I visited Matlacha a year earlier, I spent hours watching hundreds of birds feeding around islands like this. John Cassinni told me that Matlacha is receives more water from the Peace River than the Calooshatchee and the Peace River is cleaner.

Tannnin and Algae Coated Mangrove Seeds, Mound Island

Tannnin and Algae Coated Mangrove Seeds, Mound Island

This was what the water looked like where we pulled into Mound Island.  The water was reddish from natural tannins but it was also quite brown.  It was still transparent here, since it was so shallow, but any distance offshore there was zero visibility.  When I looked closely, I saw muck and algae covering the mangrove pods that were trying to grow and filter the water. The levels of pollution are clearly too high for the mangroves to do their job satisfactorily.  We can only expect nature's systems of filtration to be able to so effective with the amount tainted water we are allowing into our waterways.  With rising temperatures and climate change, algae blooms are only predicted to get worse.  

Trying to Take Hold in Alien Water, Mound Island

Trying to Take Hold in Alien Water, Mound Island

On the way back to our canoe, I noticed an inlet of water where the flow was more stagnant.  I immediately saw some green slime and possibly some toxic bacteria from the decomposition of the algae, although I needed to get closer to verify what it was and there were too many trees in the way.

Mangroves Waging the Filtration Battle

Mangroves Waging the Filtration Battle

I was heartened to see so many mangrove seeds taking hold in the unnaturally reddish brown water, but I had to wonder what the Calusa, who once viewed this island as their ceremonial center, would think about what we have allowed to happen to the surrounding water, which they no doubt recognized as a source of life. 

Spiny-Backed Orbweaver

Spiny-Backed Orbweaver

While we were walking around, we did see a lot of spiders that seemed to thrive here including one unusual Spiny Orb-weaver.  Perhaps its armor offers sufficient protection, though even spiders need water to extend their legs and survive.

Female Orb-Weaver Reaching for Her Prey

Female Orb-Weaver Reaching for Her Prey

When we came upon this Orb-weaver, we saw her reaching for her prey.  Later I read that femal orb-weavers often eat their partners after sex, which weirdly enough prolongs the sex act and makes insemination more likely and contributes to healthier offspring.  At the time we saw this occurring, I didn't know what was happening and instead was reminded more how we are on the brink of destroying each other if we don't learn to work cooperatively to protect our waterways.

Just before we disembarked, our canoe was suddenly lifted up in the air.  I knew right away that it was a manatee surfacing, but Takoda and John Moran weren't so sure.  The canoe was lifted up so evenly, I knew it had to be on the back of a very large creature, so I wasn't afraid as long as no one lurched out.  However, I did become concerned when I looked around to see the manatee and realized there was absolutely no visibility.  It made me wonder how safe it had been to take my dog and friends out in a canoe, since we had all touched and waded in this water.  The politicians in our state need to realize that tourism and property values are going to be impacted by what happens to the water in Florida.  When people can't see the aquatic life around them, it becomes less desirable to kayak or snorkel.  If it becomes so toxic they worry about the safety of their pets and children, people aren't going to want to visit and they certainly aren't going to want to move here.