Florida's ailing heart

Conditions in Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee estuaries are worse than ever

Editor's Note: This is part one of Liquid Heart: Lake Okeechobee, a three-part series

The water always moves faster when the Moore Haven spillway opens Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River, but when Jordan Thomas saw clumps of black mud bobbing to the river's surface in November, he sensed trouble.

"We'd be fishing and then all of a sudden, you'd see a bunch of bubbles toward the middle ... and then all of a sudden something would just float up and it was gross," said Thomas, a senior at Moore Haven High School.

In a neighborhood flanked by sugar cane, citrus groves and cow pastures, Thomas has spent the full 17 years of his life on the Caloosahatchee River, about a mile from the spillway. He grew up with his great-grandparents and watched the clear, fish-filled river his great-grandmother still brags about go opaque.

"In the past five or six years, it's gotten really bad. The water out there right now, you can't even see the bottom at all, even right near the shore," Thomas said, the slope of the riverbank barely visible from his living-room window.

The problem with the river is Lake Okeechobee.

The lake today

Taking off from the boat ramp named after his father, Alvin Ward Jr. zips his airboat across the murky rim canal, angles left and heads through a thick stand of cattails. The boat emerges into what Ward calls The Hayfield, a wet prairie of needlegrass that stretches to the horizon. The morning sun glints across the water's surface, making it look as smooth as a mirror, until fish ripple its surface. The faint whistle of ducks beating their wings overhead and the high-pitched holler of coots breaks the silence when the boat brakes to a halt.

In the distance, the candy-colored boats of professional sportfishermen hint that the Wal-Mart FLW fishing tournament — one of the most lucrative of the 500 tournaments held on Lake Okeechobee each year — is less than a week away.

This relatively pristine patch of wetlands is one of the few places on Lake Okeechobee that still looks the way it did 20 years ago.

Moving through the Hayfield, a gray and black boat comes into focus. Professional bass fisherman Mark Davis, from Arkansas, is prowling for a good fishing spot before the tournament, which brings a $100,000 top prize.

Davis used to fish everywhere on the lake, in the shallows where kissimmee grass, sawgrass and needlegrass poked out of the water, and near the center where peppergrass and eelgrass undulated below.

"The lake itself, the big lake out there, it's just the Dead Sea now," Davis said. "You had a complete, wonderful fishery out there and it's just all gone."

Professional bass fisherman Mark Davis

David Pelham, refinery manager

Judy Sanchez, spokeswoman for U.S. Sugar

Alvin Ward, Glades County Commissioner

Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida

Wayne Nelson, head of Fishermen Against Destruction of the Environment

Twenty years ago, Davis could hook 60 bass on a normal day. On a good day, he'd land 100.

"Now you're looking to catch five," Davis said. "There was a time that Lake Okeechobee was my favorite lake, couldn't wait to get here. It's sad, I dread coming now."

About 10,000 acres of marsh grasses ringed the lake years ago. In recent years, roughly half of those grasses have disappeared, said Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida. About 50,000 acres of submerged grasses grew in the lake before the 2004 hurricane season. Now virtually all the submerged grasses are gone, victims of high lake levels and murky water.

Grasses help settle out sediments and provide protection for spawning fish. They also host minuscule periphyton, a type of beneficial algae that forms the basis of the aquatic food chain.

Where there are no grasses, life in Lake Okeechobee is spare.

"The habitat is the driving force of the food chain and when you lose that you lose everything, and it usually works its way up from the bottom to the top-line predators," said Steven Gornak, fisheries biologist in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Lake Okeechobee field office.

Murky water and high lake levels have decimated habitat for everything from bugs to largemouth bass.

Larval fish are starving to death. Those that live past the larval stage get eaten fast because they have no place to hide.

Black crappie populations have dropped about 70 percent in just one year. Bass populations fell about 61 percent. Conditions are so extreme that bass have resorted to eating their own young and the young of black crappie.

Birds are also suffering because habitat loss has annihilated their food source.

One particularly finicky bird — the rare snail kite — survives almost exclusively on apple snails.

Loricariidae, or plecostomus, is the family of sucker fish often found cleaning algae from the sides of household fish tanks. But the fish has found its way to Lake Okeechobee, along with 15 other exotic fish species that threaten the food supply of indigenous species.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Loricariidae, or plecostomus, is the family of sucker fish often found cleaning algae from the sides of household fish tanks. But the fish has found its way to Lake Okeechobee, along with 15 other exotic fish species that threaten the food supply of indigenous species.

Apple snails live most of their lives underwater, eating the periphyton that grows on grasses. The snails also climb the grasses to breathe air and lay eggs.

When apple snails don't reproduce, snail kites don't fare well, either.

"It's a recipe for extinction," Gray said. "The snail kite population in the state, since 1995, went from 3,000 to 1,500 in the last 10 years." During that same period, almost no kites successfully nested on Lake Okeechobee. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the lake as critical habitat for the snail kite, which is a federally endangered species.

When water managers kept lake levels high in the 1990s, apple snail populations plummeted. After the drought of 2001, almost all the remaining snails died.

Since then, they haven't recovered because the lake level shot right back up again and killed the grasses.

"No food, no air, no snails," Gray said.

- - -

Ward pushes on toward the open lake, past Observation Island and another ridge of cattails, where the lake bottom disappears. At Turner's cove, great gobs of muck float in the water like lumps in a cup of instant hot chocolate. Spreading several feet in length and width, a few of the mud islands float free; winds have wedged others in the marsh grasses.

The lake's sand and limestone bottom lies beneath 50 years of accumulated mud that spans 309 square miles, the size of New York City. In places, the mud is almost three feet deep.

When hurricane winds in 2004 and 2005 churned the lake, the turbulence joggled the mud and chunks popped to the water's surface as floating tussocks.

Stirred by the wind, loose sediments became so emulsified in the water they might take more than a year to settle out. Suspended sediments and floating tussocks cloud out the sunlight underwater plants need to photosynthesize.

The mud causes another problem — it contains 57,000 tons of phosphorus, according to water management district estimates. Phosphorus and nitrogen trigger blooms of blue-green algae and filamentous algae, both of which further shield underwater plants from the sun.

Gray said the phosphorus problem is getting worse.

Last year more phosphorus entered the lake than any other year on record because hurricanes swept water from Orlando south directly into the Kissimmee River.

There are too few marshes in the watershed to treat or filter the water.

"We could have distilled water flowing into the lake and we will still have polluted water for decades," Gray said.

- - -

Ward veers away from Turner's Cove and enters Cochran's Pass, where acres of decaying cattails border a wide channel of open water. The picture turns from chocolate to gray; gray cattail stalks sink into the black lake and a dead alligator lies belly up, bleached almost white by the sun. The silence is striking. There are no bugs, no coots, no ducks.

Fishing for shiners, Jack Peterson, a Palm Beach native, tosses a 12-foot cast net into Lake Okeechobee. As a bait fisherman, Peterson makes his living off the lake but finds himself working longer to make ends meet. “Some days now I am lucky to pull up enough fish to pay for my gas,” Peterson says. When lower water levels in the lake allowed grasses to grow, Peterson could catch enough fish in a morning to make a full day’s wages.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Fishing for shiners, Jack Peterson, a Palm Beach native, tosses a 12-foot cast net into Lake Okeechobee. As a bait fisherman, Peterson makes his living off the lake but finds himself working longer to make ends meet. “Some days now I am lucky to pull up enough fish to pay for my gas,” Peterson says. When lower water levels in the lake allowed grasses to grow, Peterson could catch enough fish in a morning to make a full day’s wages.

Murky water didn't kill the cattails. The Corps and the water management district sprayed the plants with herbicides to open up the pass and make room for more desirable vegetation to grow. In nutrient-polluted waters, cattails grow so thick they out-compete other grasses. Conservationists, boaters and fishermen agree the cattails need to go.

But when the plants die, they'll add volume to the muck on the lake's bottom if they're not removed, Ward said.

- - -

Not far from the dead cattails, fishermen congregate in Moonshine Bay. Needle grass pokes through the water, and while it isn't as clear as The Hayfield, it's not nearly as bad as Turner's Cove.

With their fishing boats parked side by side, Kenny Elkins and Jack Peterson break for lunch, their cast nests retired on deck. The two bait fishermen shake their heads at the state of the lake. Moonshine Bay is the only place left where fishing is still good, they say.

"When I was a kid I'd jump in the water at Twin Palms and I would walk waist deep in water all the way to the Three Islands and it would be clear, with nothing but peppergrass," Peterson said. He grew up on the lake in the 1970s.

Later, he and Elkins began to earn a living cast-netting shiners for bait shops.

"I'd come out and I'd fish a little bit in the morning and I would fish a little bit in the afternoon and that was it and the water was clear. You'd have a lot of vegetation," Elkins recalled.

With fewer fish in the lake, the job requires more work and bouncing around to other lakes. Elkins and Peterson said they're happy to catch 30 dozen shiners a day. They used to catch that many in an hour.

The Caloosahatchee estuaries

The mud that Jordan Thomas saw floating past his house in November probably wound up somewhere in San Carlos Bay, where the Caloosahatchee River meets the salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Out near Shell Point, in the mouth of the Caloosahatchee, the water looks brown and dusty with tiny flecks of debris.

It's a sunny day in late January and Roy Kibbee, a commercial crab fisherman, pulls up one of his traps, grabbing a buoy with a rod and yanking up the attached rope. The buoy is slick with mud and green algae.

Kibbee places the rope in a pulley and as the crank spins, it squeezes mud from the rope onto the deck.

Knocking the trap against a wooden box, a half-dozen crabs spill out. Brown algae clings to the trap as Kibbee stacks it with the others on the back of the boat. These days, he has to power-wash his traps once a month to get off the algae. In the past, that was a chore once every three months.

Thirty years ago, Kibbee and a crew of one or two other men could catch 1,000 pounds of crabs with 100 traps. Today, with the same number of traps, Kibbee brings in 50 to 100 pounds.

"The last two, three, four years, have all been bad years," Kibbee said. "They've been releasing a lot of water."

By the look and smell of the Caloosahatchee, Kibbee knows when the Moore Haven spillway has been opened.

The water turns from sea-green to tea-colored to dark brown.

"In another four or five years, most everything is going to be dead and I don't know how long it's going to take to rebuild it." Kibbee said. "A century maybe? It's taken a long time for it to be the way it is."

The water releases this past November and December were the worst Kibbee could recall. He pulled up his traps and instead of crabs, he found armor-plated catfish and mud that smelled of sewage.

After Hurricane Wilma's winds upturned Lake Okeechobee, rains gushed in from the Kissimmee River, bringing the lake from 15.5 feet above sea level to 17.1 feet in about a week.

From late October to January, mud-laden water poured into the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee at a rate of nearly 3 million gallons a minute.

The November flows added to the stress the river had already endured.

Last spring, early rains prompted the Army Corps and the water management district to dump huge amounts of water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Heavy rains also fell in June, triggering a July deluge that shot 4 million gallons of water per minute into the river. By August the releases slowed, but the river had become so full of the lake's polluted water that blue-green algae blooms spread throughout the river and into the bay.

John Cassani, a scientist and member of Southwest Florida Watershed Council, said it was the first time he had seen such an enormous bloom of blue-green algae.

"The entire spectrum, from the Gulf to the lake, had an algae bloom," Cassani said. "This event this year was extraordinary because of its geographic scope and intensity and duration."

Ralph Woodring, a Sanibel Island baitshop owner and Tarpon Bay shrimp fisherman, said the estuaries have been on the decline for 10 years, but 2005 topped all others.

"It's obviously the very worst year that we've had in the amount of water that has come down upon us," Woodring said. "We've seen seagrasses just practically go to nothing."

Without the grasses, Woodring said, manatees and shrimp are scarce.

Steve Bortone, a biologist with Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said the density of seagrasses in San Carlos Bay has dropped by half since 2004.

Estuary grasses thrive in transparent waters with fluctuating salinity. The grasses don't like murky water or extreme salinity changes. The lake water exposed the grasses to prolonged periods of fresh water and clouded out the sun.

The long-term effects on the grasses aren't yet known.

"We know they're being stressed, but we don't know what their breaking point is," Bortone said.

Like lake grasses, seagrasses in the estuaries are vital habitat for young fish and shrimp and they're food for manatees.

Oyster beds are another integral part of the estuary.

"When you're looking at an oyster reef, you're really looking at an ecosystem," said Aswani Volety, associate professor of Marine Science at Florida Gulf Coast University.

For the last six or seven years, Volety has been studying area oyster reefs, which provide shelter and food for other critters and keep water clear by filtering out sediments and bacteria.

In the upper reaches of the estuary, near Iona Cove, oyster beds are dead.

Volety said lake releases flushed oyster larvae from the river into Tarpon Bay, where they started to flourish in water that is usually more saline.

"The shift is normal, but for a short period of time," Volety said. "In terms of releasing fresh water, if you do it over and over again every year, it's not too good."

The timing of the freshwater releases causes problems with extreme salinity fluctuation in the estuary. In the wet season, the river is inundated with too much lake water.

In the dry season, the regulation schedule adopted by the Army Corps calls for lake releases to cease. That schedule, which the Army Corps has deviated from in recent years, causes salinity in the estuary to climb too high.

A slow trickle from the lake in the dry season, Bortone said, would help the estuary and reduce the volume of harmful releases in the rainy season. The Army Corps is reworking its regulation schedule to release more lake water to the estuaries in the dry season and less in the wet season.

Once the water clears and salinity stays in balance, Bortone said, the estuary will probably bounce back to health rapidly — if the seagrass beds don't die first.

- - -

Before the Moore Haven spillway existed, the Caloosahatchee River slowly bent its way to the coast.

Fed by Lake Flirt, Lake Hicpochee and occasionally Lake Okeechobee, water ran higher in the rainy season and lower in the dry season, but the shift was not severe because the marshes between the lakes and the rivers stored water.

From Orlando to Lake Okeechobee and from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, today's water dashes off wide rooftops and asphalt parking lots and shoots rapidly through canals and straightened rivers.

Fast-moving water picks up dirt and dumps it in Lake Okeechobee. Before the 2004 hurricanes, Lake Okeechobee was already having problems with high muddy water that killed off underwater vegetation.

"The hurricanes just compounded the problem," Gornak said.

When storms dropped huge rains in Orlando a century ago, the water took six months to reach Lake Okeechobee, Gray said. A large portion of that water sank into the earth or evaporated. Now it takes a matter of days or weeks to reach the lake and there's no time for evaporation or for mud to settle out.

"That's why Lake Okeechobee goes up so fast, because when it rains, all the water in the whole watershed gets to the lake in one month," Gray said. "Not only the water goes faster, but you've got more of it."

All that water is causing more trouble because it's muddy and saturated with phosphorus, which triggers algae blooms and fosters the growth of invasive species that destroy habitat.

Whether it's Mark Davis seeking a tournament title, Kibbee trying to make ends meet or Jordan hanging out on the riverbank by his house, anyone familiar with the water will say loss of habitat means fewer fish and fewer birds.

Terry Garrels, an airboat tour operator and fishing guide based out of Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina in Clewiston, said Lake Okeechobee used to be a 467,000-acre fisherman's dream. Now, he said, it's a mud-hole that might have 50,000 acres of decent habitat left.

Garrels and Ward said the Corps and the water management district need to dredge the mud from the lake bottom, keep the lake level low and remove nuisance plants after they're killed.

Otherwise, Ward said, the lake will continue to die and pollute the estuaries.

"Both coastlines are screaming their heads off and I don't blame them," Ward said. "Let's go back and clean up what's been messed up that's causing the problem.

Their problem is not going to go away until you clean this problem up."

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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