A state environmental agency gave a presentation inFort Myers on Thursday on cleaning up the Caloosahatchee River while another state agency pumped polluted farm water into Lake Okeechobee, which drains into the river.
If water management in Florida seems confusing, that’s because it is. The Army Corps of Engineers manages the Lake Okeechobee release protocol, but the South Florida Water Management District operates the pumps.
The district announced Thursday around 2 p.m. that it had declared an emergency the day before at 6 p.m., while the Army Corps was, ironically, taking public input in Clewiston on how to best protect areas around the lake from flooding.
How are these toxic releases possible?
“I’d call the water management district since they operate the pumps,” said John Campbell, an Army Corps spokesman.
Shortly after that phone call between The News-Press and Campbell, the Army Corps sent out a press release saying it was going to lower the amount of lake water flowing to Fort Myers. Levels had been at 5,000 cubic feet per second, which is well beyond the ideal maximum level of 2,800 cubic feet per second. So the water releases were “lowered” to the maximum level.
Those types of discharges kill sea grass and oyster beds and can disrupt the marine food chain. But the water pumped back into Lake Okeechobee on Thursday from farms has far higher nutrient levels than the lake itself, which has been in violation of federal standards for decades even without the pollution loads from farms surrounding the lake.
“This set of releases is going to include polluted water from the Everglades,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. “This is not the water that’s coming down the Kissimmee River and into Lake Okeechobee.”
Recent studies have shown that exposure to bacteria can increase chances of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
These releases increase the frequency and duration of harmful algal blooms, which, in turn, can cripple the tourism and real estate industries.
“In the lake we already have (excess nutrients) for phosphorus, and as far as I know they’ve never gotten down to where the phosphorus loading was down to (meet federal requirements),” said Rick Bartleson, a former district water quality scientist who now works at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. “The only time they can say they did (meet the federal standards) was a hurricane year when it blew away their sensor.”
Bartleson collects water quality samples in the river and estuary and reports his findings to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which gave Thursday’s presentation in Fort Myers, and other agencies.
“This is adding more phosphorus to the lake, which already doesn’t meet the standards,” he said. “They’re never going to meet the (federal standards) by back pumping.” Back pumping is taking water used to irrigate farms and pumping it back into the lake. The practice virtually stopped a decade ago because of environmental concerns.
Once famous for its plethora of blue crabs and massive tarpon, the Caloosahatchee River today suffers from excessive nutrients (which feed potentially harmful algal blooms), unacceptable fecal coliform levels, turbidity and low levels of dissolved oxygen.
DEP’s Kevin O’Donnell told a crowd of two dozen people Thursday that “in the east portion of the Caloosahatchee we have a nutrient problem. In the central portion … it looks like there is a lot of insufficient information (about the nutrients).”
“It’s reasonable to assume that if it continues for very long we would certainly be a recipient of elevated pollutant levels,” said John Cassani, with the Southwest Florida Watershed Council.
Bartleson said future damages here will depend on how long the district pumps farm water into the lake.
“The more back pumping they do, the more water that’s coming out of the lake, the higher our phosphorus and total suspended solids will be in the estuary,” Bartleson said. “In the estuary, phosphorus supports harmful algal called cyanobacteria.” Cyanobacteria, in large amounts, can produce a deadly toxin that causes illnesses in aquatic species and humans.
The district put out a press release 22 hours after the pumping started which stated: “To protect the lives and property of approximately 50,000 people surrounding Lake Okeechobee, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) initiated emergency pumping of water into the lake following the wettest January day in 25 years across the entire SFWMD. Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay and Canal Point received some of the heaviest rainfall, with 6 inches in a 24 hour period. Rising water levels from this intense rain necessitated the rare pumping event, which began about 6 p.m. on January 27. Pumping operations, in coordination and accordance with permits issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, will continue as needed.”
The release mentioned nothing about removing water from the farms around the lake, for the benefit of those farms, which have been badly affected by the rain.
Judy Sanchez, spokeswoman for U.S. Sugar, said Thursday that sugar crops in theEverglades Agricultural Area are being hurt by the rain, as is the sugar industry in general.
“The extraordinarily wet ‘El Nino’ winter weather thus far has negatively impacted all EAA sugarcane planting, harvesting and processing operations. The weather impacts on the Florida sugarcane industry reach from field preparation all the way through the harvesting and milling functions and could cost the industry millions,” she said in a statement.
Also, the statement says, “all four sugar mills have been forced to shut down for an average of 16 days each (based on lost time) due to the severe weather.”
Sanchez also said that, to date, sweet corn and green bean crops are 50 percent lost.