EDITOR’S NOTE: In ongoing efforts to maintain island water quality, Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce last week sent this letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding the chamber’s concern about current water levels in Lake Okeechobee.
Dear Colonel Kelly:
The Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, which includes 462 businesses and member organizations, is very concerned about the current level of Lake Okeechobee and what it means for the health of the Caloosahatchee estuary, our coastal waters, and local businesses. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted our local businesses, many of which are just now starting to show signs of recovery. High-volume freshwater releases to our coast from Lake Okeechobee on the heels of the pandemic could devastate our local economy. We strongly urge the Army Corps of Engineers to explore all options for moving water out of the lake prior to the rainy season and develop a plan to keep water moving south as we transition into the rainy season.
As you are aware, the level of Lake Okeechobee currently remains above 14.5 feet. This puts the lake at more than 2.5 feet higher than it was at this time during the past two years, and more than one-half of a foot greater than in 2018. This is very concerning in light of the fact that in 2018 the Caloosahatchee received harmful freshwater flows from May to October. These releases had long-term impacts on the ecology of our waters and our business community. The nutrient-rich water released to the Caloosahatchee fueled blue-green algae blooms throughout the river and estuary and exacerbated red tide blooms that lingered for months along our coast. The 2018 blooms resulted in a $47 million economic impact to Sanibel and Captiva islands, with more than 425 tons of dead marine life removed from Sanibel Island at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1.6 million.
The Caloosahatchee can no longer be the release valve for the entire south Florida water management system. It is imperative that the Corps balance the needs of the entire system, not favor one stakeholder group or natural system at the expense of others.
On behalf of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber, we thank you for your attention to this important issue and we look forward to working with you and your staff to find a path forward that is equitable for all stakeholders impacted by Lake Okeechobee operations.
President and CEO