Business owners, water management officials and environmentalists gathered at the Franklin Lock in Alva Thursday.
The lock is one of many now opened by the Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to deal with rising water levels in Lake Okeechobee, but there are concerns that these water releases will have long-term effects on water quality and tourism.
The Corps began increasing water releases to combat rising water levels in Lake Okeechobee earlier this summer. The past few months have seen record rainfall and as of this week water levels are at 16 feet.
The water releases are now visible throughout a host of waterways east, west and south of the lake. Water under the Sanibel causeway, in the Caloosahatchee, and even near the beach is now brown.
Al Durrett, who owns Fish Tale Marina in Fort Myers Beach, said this doesn’t bode well for his business and the surrounding tourism industry.
I think the hotels and motels and those types of businesses the people that it’s really going to affect,” he said. “We count on so much business during the rainy season. People come to Florida hopefully for clean water, and right now we are not experiencing the cleanest water that we could have.”
Corps officials said their primary concern right now is to lower the lake levels to make sure the aging Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding it doesn’t leak. Officials have warned in the past, that a breach of that dike could lead to devastating floods.
In a conference call with reporters, Lt. Col. Thomas Greco said the Corps is preparing for persistent heavy rainfall.
“We are taking that very seriously and again implementing the measures that we can to lower those lake stages, but at the same time monitor Herbert Hoover dike to ensure that we provide the maximum safety to those communities surrounding the lake,” he said.
However, managing water levels through water releases concerns environmentalists and nearby residents who said it’s deteriorating the water quality of estuaries east and west of the lake.
Greco said on the conference call that a lot of the dark water is also from runoff in nearby basins.
However, Thomas Van Lent, the senior scientist at the Everglades Foundation, said the ongoing releases from Lake Okeechobee will eventually pollute the water even more than runoff.
“The nutrient contents that are nitrogen and phosphorus are much higher than the surrounding basin-- especially in nitrogen,” he said. “So, as this becomes more estuarine we will start to see the effect of that. So, I don’t think we have even seen the real onset of the most serious water quality effects.”
Van Lent said residents and local businesses can also expect blue-green algal blooms in the future—on top of already brown water. In fact, a green bloom is already visible in the Franklin lock.
Van Lent said, unfortunately, there are only long-term solutions to this problem.
“We did not get here over night, and we are not going to find the solution overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take fixing both the quantity of the water and see if we can re-plumb the project to make it function more like the way it did before we built all this infrastructure. We got to find ways of cleaning up this water both that is coming into the lake and the water that is coming from the local basin-- from the people that live here.”
The state and federal government are spending billions together to restore the historic flow of water south into the Everglades. Once that is completed years from now, water from the lake can flow south instead of into the estuaries.
Until then, there are water management plans kicking around Capitol Hill that will help the state build reservoirs to store the excess water near Lake Okeechobee.
The Florida Legislature has also created a Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and the Lake Okeechobee Basin. The committee meets August 22 and will discuss solutions for many of the problems associated with the lake’s water levels.