Water from Lake Okeechobee and rainfall within the Caloosahatchee watershed are causing water quality issues in the river's estuary. Wochit
The surface of Lake Okeechobee has fallen below 17 feet for the first time since the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, but it's not known when releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers will slow.
"Certainly it’s something we’re exploring right now, but one of the things that has us uneasy about slowing things down is the tropical disturbance in the Caribbean that has some potential to bring rain to south Florida," said John Campbell, with the Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville. "But if we don’t see significant rain we’ll take a look at some forecasts and we'll see."
The National Hurricane Center has given the tropical disturbance a 50 percent chance of growing into a named storm over the next five days. It's now just east of Central America and is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico by the weekend.
The Caloosahatchee and its estuary were blasted with the highest flows ever recorded in the immediate days after Hurricane Irma, which dumped about a foot, on average, across the region.
Army Corps protocols say the surface of the lake should be kept between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level to protect tens of thousands of people living south of Okeechobee and massive farm lands there while also providing drinking water to millions of Floridians and irrigation water to the farms.
About 6,800 cubic feet per second (around 4.4 billion gallons per day) was coming out of the lake Tuesday, with about 9,000 cubic feet per second pushing through Franklin Lock and Dam. The difference between the two represents the eastern segment of the river and stormwater flows there.
The Corps released 144 billion gallons between Sept. 19 (the first day of releases after Irma) and Oct. 23., with about 133 billion gallons coming from the river's watershed.
Together the lake and river pushed releases to record levels (nearly 28,000 cubic feet per second) at the Franklin Lock and Dam near Alva.
The river's estuary begins to experience harm once levels are above 2,800 cubic feet per second.
Most of the water coming down the river, about 76 percent, is coming from the lake, according to Army Corps records.
The excess freshwater flows are killing off sea grass and oyster beds and the base of the marine food chain.
"The water’s dark," said Rick Bartleson, a water quality scientist at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation on Sanibel. "At the Colonial bridge you could only see the tops of the rocks and about 5 inches down the rocks. We’re showing really large spikes of turbidity probably from the water flowing so fast from the canal part of (the Caloosahatchee River). It’s stirred everything up."
Historically, most of that water would have washed into the Everglades, but the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie (on the east coast) rivers were artificially connected to Lake Okeechobee to drain the Everglades for farming and development.
The poor water quality impacts everything from the color of the coastal Gulf of Mexico to the smallest, most harmless of critters.
"Some of the starfish are very sensitive and if a small change in salinity doesn’t kill them, they can’t hold onto the bottom and if they can’t hold onto the bottom they end up washing up onto the beach," Bartleson said. "And that’s a one-day impact. Weeks (of high water flows) will impact just about everything."
But there's little the Corps can do when it comes to decision making. Too much rain over a small period of time means that the region is going to see flooding.
"They’re operating with a lot of constraints," said John Capece with Calusa Waterkeeper, a water quality watchdog group. "They’re managing the system they’ve got as best as possible. They’ve just got a lousy hand to play."
Hurricane Irma was the second large rain event in a two-week period in late August and early September.
Capece said he's concerned that Everglades restoration projects like the Caloosahatchee River reservoir will never catch up with the rate at which the environment is being damaged.
"There’s additional projects that they’re kicking around, like a Glades county reservoir and reservoirs north of the lake, but it’s all about the pace," Capece said. "Is the pace on solutions keeping up with the new problem creation? I just don’t think it is or will be in time for the environment."
Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis (@ChadGillisNP) on Twitter.