An environmental group, a Lee County commissionerand a real estate agent met Tuesday morning along the Caloosahatchee River to talk about unseasonable flooding and brown water along the Southwest Florida coast.
Heavy January rains driven by an El Nino weather pattern flooded practically all of South Florida, from north of Lake Okeechobee to the edge of Florida Bay.
Turbid, chocolate-colored waters have plagued the Southwest Florida coast over the past month, when the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maximized flows through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.
Local stormwater runoff and Okeechobee releases have forced freshwater 15 miles or more into the Gulf of Mexico. Oyster and sea grass beds are dying, and frustrated local anglers say they’re not even seeing fish in the water — much less catching them.
“It’s probably too early to tell what the damage is (because) we’re still recovering from 2013 (summer flooding),” said Eric Eikenberg with the Everglades Foundation.
Rains during the summer of 2013 caused similar conditions on the east and west coasts.
South Florida’s drainage system (the second largest on the planet) can’t adequately deal with excess water during the rainy season, so releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers have been at maximum levels in recent weeks.
Nutrient-laden waters like those flowing down the river now can feed harmful algal blooms like red tide (Karenia brevis) and blue-green algae, sometimes called cyanobacteria.
Lee Commissioner Frank Mann has said in recent weeks that current conditions are part of nature, that South Florida’s ecology — which evolved with relatively low nutrient levels — is to blame for local water woes.
“Just because it’s brown doesn’t describe the pollution,” Mann said Tuesday. “The fresh water you need to get south (of Lake O) also carries these nutrients, but any water south is good for us.”
Sending water south became a possibility last week after Gov. Rick Scott and several federal and state agencies (as well as property owners and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida) agreed not to file suit against each other if the water discharges go awry.
Property values here are also going south, as in down in value, according to the real estate industry.
Florida Realtors released a report based on 2012 numbers that says property values were suppressed by nearly $1 billion a year because of poor water quality in Lee and Martin County (where Lake Okeechobee water is released to the Atlantic Ocean).
Improved water quality in Lee County would increase property values by an estimated $541 million, the report says.
Any bias, the report says, would make those numbers worse, not better.
Sanibel Realtor Shane Spring said Tuesday that bad water caused a buyer to walk away from a $6 million house on Captiva.
“We can show a direct correlation that effects our real estate and tourism industries,” Spring said.
The Army Corps of Engineers is in the middle of rehabilitating the ailing Herbert Hoover Dike, a 143-mile earth, concrete and steel barrier that stands between billions of gallons of potential flood waters and thousands of lower-income working families.
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.
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