The C-43 Reservoir is an important component of long-term water control.
The C-43 Reservoir is an important component of long-term water control.

Water quality. It comes first under Old Business on the City Council agenda each month and yearly is listed as the council's No. 1 goal. The council had plenty to talk about in 2017, which ends at midnight. It will have plenty to talk about going forward into the new year too.

The past two years have served as a microcosm for what is the overriding issue for the long-term future of Southwest Florida. The year that ends today began dry and ended wet. This year gave a graphic display of the inadequacies of water control as it presently is, not only in San Carlos Bay and along the Caloosahatchee River, but on the other coast too and throughout The Everglades to Flamingo Bay.

In his monthly water quality report to City Council at City Hall on June 6, Sanibel's excellent Director of Natural Resources James Evans reported the level of Lake Okeechobee at 11.08 feet, a level 3.24 feet lower than the previous year at that time and 1.5 feet lower than in 2015. The next day the Corps of Engineers showed the level at 11.2, a 24-hour rise of 0.12 feet. That's because it had rained. It rained all over Florida and just like that the drought was over.

Sanibel Director of Natural Resources James Evans updates the City Council on water quality issues each month at City Council meetings. SC photo by David Rohn

Evans called it a “sweet spot.” Releases down the Caloosahatchee from Lake O by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were right where they should be and water clarity in San Carlos Bay was excellent.

We all know what happened after that. It kept raining and then came Hurricane Irma. Not to be forgotten is Hurricane Nate, a storm out in the Gulf of Mexico that dumped its share of water. Suddenly the freshwater entering San Carlos Bay went off the scale.

The Corps of Engineers was holding back water from the lake right after Irma went through, but the estuary was still getting extraordinarily high amounts of fresh water just from the runoff within the Caloosahatchee watershed. Once that abated some, the Corps started releasing water.

The result has been poor water quality. Nature can bounce back from the harm done late in the year, but what about down the road? In the past two years Southwest Florida has gone from wet conditions induced by El Nino, to a drought to a hurricane. That's the way it is and the report on water quality at each City Council meeting isn't just about now. It's about the future.

On Oct. 18, Vice Mayor Mick Denham appeared before our local state legislators at a meeting in Fort Myers. The city gave its support to three regional water projects and asked the legislative delegation to get behind Sanibel's continuing upgrade of the Donax wastewater reclamation facility.

The City of Sanibel's legislative requests for this year, again, focus on restoring appropriate freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee and improving the quality of our coastal waters,” Denham told the local members of the Florida House and Senate. “As you are all very aware, water quality has a significant impact on our local economy – impacting tourism, jobs, property values and our very way of life.”

The city has three projects on its list, but the C-43 Reservoir, which would hold water in wet times, is the biggest ask. Sanibel has asked the legislature for $100 million in funding for the South Florida Water Management District to keep the project on schedule.

At home, Sanibel has asked the legislature for $2 for continued upgrades at the Donax wastewater reclamation facility. The city will match that with $3.6 million of its own money.

The Santiva Chronicle has released its Top 5 stories of 2017. Just like the City Council agenda, water quality may not get the top headlines, but it's always there. Water quality is No. 1 for Sanibel, Captiva and the rest of South Florida.