City of Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans is ready to give his monthly water quality update to City Council. SC photo by Chuck Larsen Photography
City of Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans is ready to give his monthly water quality update to City Council. SC photo by Chuck Larsen Photography

Joining forces with five other municipalities as well as unincorporated areas of Lee County, the city of Sanibel is leading an appeal against the South Florida Water Management District to increase the amount of water discharged from Lake Okeechobee during the dry season.

I think everyone likes the fact that we’re one united front. And, I think the timing of this is just so mind-boggling considering what we’re going through from an ecological impact and, more importantly, the economic impact we’re going through, that the water management district would be just so dismissive of this,” said Mayor Kevin Ruane at the Oct. 2 city council meeting.

On Sept. 24, the cities of Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and Cape Coral filed a joint petition challenging the validity of an amendment to a proposed rule on Caloosahatchee River minimum flows and levels (MFLs) as “vague, arbitrary and capricious.” Since the filing, Ruane has also rallied support from the cities of Fort Myers, Bonita Springs and the village of Estero. He also reported support from Captiva, Pine Island and Boca Grande.

At the SFWMD meeting on Sept. 13, Ruane and other mayors requested a delay in adopting an MFL rule until the discrepancy between the district’s recommendations and those of area scientists could be resolved.

I don’t do this lightly. I don’t like to encourage any type of dispute or litigation or petition. But, in this particular case, it’s what we all believe in,” he added. “I’ve sat up here year after year and begged for water during the dry season and then we get slaughtered during the wet season. It just doesn’t seem to be a shared adversity at all.”

Randy Smith, spokesperson for the district, declined comment.

It is active litigation now, so the district will not be making any comment until the administrative law judge has filed an opinion. That should happen in 30 days,” he said.

Ruane plans to get on the agenda to also get the support of Lee County at the next board of commissioners meeting on Oct. 26.

In two weeks, my recommendation is to go there with the five other mayors and make them tell six mayors in Lee County that they prefer not to do this. Because at this point in time, I think it’s paramount that all Lee County is represented.”

In his monthly water quality update report, Natural Resources Director James Evans emphasized the need for more freshwater flow in the Caloosahatchee estuary during the dry season.

I would expect as we get into the dry season…that less flow will be recommended and it will get to a point where they’ll probably recommend 650 cfs (cubic feet per second) again so when we get to that point, our recommendation should be to get those optimal flows between 800 to 1000 cubic feet per second,” said Evans.

But, I wouldn’t recommend above that. It’s a sweet spot between getting not enough flow and too much flow, especially with all the nutrients that have entered the system over the past five months or so,” he added.

The lack of freshwater flow during the dry season and resulting high salinities damage the tape grass habitat, which provides an ecological baseline for the health of the estuary, says Evans and other scientists.

In his update, Evans reported that we are transitioning into the dry season, as expected at the beginning of October. He also reported the level of Lake Okeechobee is nearly two feet lower than it was at this time last year.

He also says above average rainfall is expected during the dry season due to the increase in chances of El Nino.

As for an update on the red tide bloom, which has been present for nearly a year, Evans reported that last week’s counts ranged from not present to high in Lee County. High counts reflect more than one million cells per liter.

Our highest concentrations in Lee County were recorded at Lighthouse Beach Park and Tarpon Bay Beach and Lynn Hall at Fort Myers Beach. And, the red tide was visible at some areas along our beaches, obviously at Lighthouse Beach, Tarpon Bay Beach and at Bowman’s Beach.”

A small number of dead fish were reported as well as minor respiratory irritation, he added.

Red tide is also present in Northwest Florida from Walton County to Pasco County,” said Evans. “Yesterday, we received a report from Palm Beach County that they’re now measuring red tide cell counts in a moderate range. That would suggest that the bloom has gotten into the Gulf loop and is now along the east coast.”

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Lab also reported a bloom of the marine dinoflagellate Peridinium Quinquecorde that has darkened some island waters, he said.

It’s not known to produce toxins - it’s a pretty common dinoflagellate, but it has the ability to make the water appear dark similar to red tide. That’s what we saw at several of our beaches and the cell counts were somewhere around 46 million per liter, so high concentrations,” he said.

While not toxic, as they break down they can depress the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water which can be harmful to fish and crabs and other invertebrates, he added.

Keep up with the city’s water quality monitoring at mysanibel.com.