by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
Since 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has used the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule to determine the operations and releases of the state’s largest lake to the surrounding estuaries.
Now, the USACE must come up with a new operating system that will be put into effect in 2022 called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual.
With this new plan in the works, several letters have been sent to the corps expressing concerns over the way the lake’s releases have been handled in the past, as well as the direction the USACE is heading in handling the lake’s operations in the future when it comes to releases towards the Caloosahatchee estuary.
Kevin Ruane, chairman for the Lee County Board of County Commissioners and former Sanibel mayor, recently wrote one of these letters to the USACE which highlighted a 2018 red tide bloom that lingered along the coasts of Sanibel and Captiva for months.
Ruane explained that this harmful bloom was caused by the way the corps handled Lake Okeechobee operations, which left the lake’s water levels high and caused nutrient rich freshwater releases that fuel red tide into the Caloosahatchee estuary, eventually seeping into the waterways of the islands.
Ruane emphasized that this disaster cannot happen again with the new LOSOM, especially during the rainy season when the freshwater is not needed.
“Any balance plan must decrease high volume discharges, increase optimal flows and improve over the future without performance,” Ruane’s letter read. “We cannot continue to be starved for water in the dry season only to be deloused by high volume discharges weeks later as the rainy season arrives.”
This letter was brought up during a Captiva Community Panel meeting on Tuesday where panel members and Ryan Orgera, CEO of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, discussed what needs to be done with the LOSOM to protect the coasts of the islands.
Orgera promoted plan CC to panel members, which is one of five alternative plans, labeled AA through EE, that the LOSOM is considering. Each plan has benefits for some areas of the state when it comes to Lake Okeechobee operations, as well as tradeoffs for other areas.
Orgera explained that plan CC is pushing to reduce the lake’s releases to the east coast, specifically eliminating regulatory releases to the Saint Lucie estuary, located east of Lake Okeechobee, as well as eliminating harmful regulatory releases to the Caloosahatchee estuary while maintaining beneficial dry season releases to the west that target recover restoration flow.
The plan, which is supported by organizations like the SCCF and Captains for Clean Water, also pushes to have all of Lake Okeechobee’s flows to the Caloosahatchee to be measured and tested at the Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva rather than at the Moore Haven Lock and Dam, which is located right next to the lake.
Orgera said the reason for this is to get a more accurate read of the harmfulness the water may have coming along the Caloosahatchee River later in its path rather than what is coming directly from Lake Okeechobee.
He then went on to explain the high stakes of the situation and why the USACE needs to consider these requests in plan CC as the new LOSOM will be in effect for the next 10 years.
With this severity explained, Orgera pointed to a June 17 LOSOM meeting with a public comment period and urged those listening to the panel meeting to attend and voice their concerns over current Lake Okeechobee management, as well as to promote plan CC which benefits the Caloosahatchee estuary and the islands of Sanibel and Captiva.
Towards the end of the discussion, Orgera explained that too much of the freshwater releases at the wrong times from Lake Okeechobee can be harmful to the islands.
However, he also emphasized that water from the lake is still needed for the island’s ecosystems to thrive, which is why having the right LOSOM in place is so essential to the animals, plants and humans of southwest Florida.
“We need this water,” Orgera said. “Without some water, we will not have any seagrass. We have already lost over 1,000 acres of seagrass, and there’s a variety of trickle-down reasons including fishing, healthy ecology and water quality that are impacted by this.”
Other CCP Items:
Captiva Erosion Prevention District Update
Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company set to begin mobilization of equipment in late July and start construction in early August for the Island Beach Nourishment Project. Construction set to end in late September
Targeting late July to hold a townhall meeting to explain the timeline and cost of the project to the public
SCCF will have to move sea turtle nests to different parts of the island to avoid construction. Will do a study on turtle nest relocation and how it affects the success rate of the nests
Fire District, Sheriff’s Office and panel members have experienced cell coverage issues on Captiva when it comes to Verizon
CCP to have a Verizon representative come and speak at the July meeting. Will propose certain solutions to fix cell coverage on the island
Lee County Sherriff Lt. Mike Sawicki said officers on Captiva have switched to provider AT&T and have experienced much better cell coverage
Sea Level Rise Committee
Committee, as well as partners in the city of Sanibel and the SCCF, got approval to submit a full proposal to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for its 2021 National Coastal Resilience Fund, which will award several chosen coastal projects around the country with approximately $34 million in grants
If the committee is awarded a grant, the total is expected to be $250,000 to help the SLR committee pay for planning, design and restoration of natural solutions that will protect the coasts of Sanibel and Captiva from imminent sea level rise