Lake flow to river is subject of lawsuit

Releases of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River are the topic of continuing lawsuits and protests by those seeking to increase releases during the dry season, or halt releases during the wet season.

On Dec. 19, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sent a letter to Col. Alan Dodd, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District; Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior; Dr. Roy Crabtree of the National Marine Fisheries Services; and Margaret Everson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, notifying all of their intent of the CBD, Calusa Waterkeeper,and the Waterkeeper Alliance to sue them for violations of the Endangered Species Act. (Note: Col. Dodd was the commander of the Jacksonville District during 2012-15. Col. Jason Kirk followed Col. Dodd. Col. Andrew Kelly assumed command on Aug. 24, 2018.)

The letter alleges: “The corps’ unmitigated discharges of polluted water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers from Lake Okeechobee are killing countless marine species, crippling local economies and violating U.S. laws enacted to protect the environment.”

The letter seeks to connect the Lake Okeechobee releases to the marine deaths caused by red tide. However, a 2018 Mote Marine study found that while red tide may feed on the high nutrient loads found in coastal waters, the lake releases did not cause the red tide. In addition, University of Florida Water Institute data and South Florida Water Management District records show that most of the phosphorus entering that estuary comes from runoff directly into the Caloosahatchee River from the local watershed, while lake releases contribute about 30 percent of the phosphorus that flows into the Caloosahatchee estuary.

While those filing lawsuits profess to want the river to have a more “natural” flow, before man’s intervention, the river received water from the lake only during the wet season.

Before Hamilton Disston used dynamite and dredges to create a liquid highway from Fort Myers to Lake Okeechobee for freight and human transportation in the late 1880s, the river was connected to the big lake by a series of marshes. During the wet season, the lake would overflow into the marshes at Moore Haven, which has an elevation of around 13 feet above sea level. Water from the lake would flow through from the lake through the marsh to Lake Hicpochee. Water flowed from Lake Hicpochee westward into Lettuce Lake and then Bonnet Lake; when the water was high, the two lakes merged. From Bonnet Lake, water flowed into Lake Flirt, the headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River, near Fort Thompson.

Channelization, first for navigation and later for flood control, changed the hydrology of the Caloosahatchee River watershed, draining that watershed much faster than nature’s design. Today, without artificial flow from Lake Okeechobee during the dry season, the river would suffer from saltwater intrusion.

On Sept. 24, 2017, the mayors of the cities of Sanibel, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Cape Coral and Bonita Springs penned a letter to South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Chairman Federico Fernandez asking for a guaranteed increased flow from the lake during the dry season.

Previously, the dry season flow, measured at the Franklin Lock on the Caloosahatchee River — which is 40 miles from the Moore Haven Lock where water from Lake Okeechobee enters the river — was 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) or about 194 million gallons per day. In 2018, the South Florida Water Management District increased the dry season allocation to 400 cfs.

That’s not enough, say the mayors, who have asked for a minimum flow of 700 cfs, measured at the Franklin Lock.

In a Sept. 24, 2018, letter, the mayors argued that the additional freshwater from the lake is necessary to keep the salinity levels in the estuary from getting too high. High salinity is harmful to native plants, such as tape grass, which are critical to the estuary habitat.

The letter cites scientific research that indicates that flows needed for actual restoration of the estuaries could be as high as 1,000 cfs.

Since the dry season started, the corps has given the Caloosahatchee River up to 1,000 cfs in releases, in an attempt to help improve the health of the Caloosahatchee estuary.

In June 2017, the federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected a lawsuit filed by the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the Conservancy of South Florida against the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers that alleged the releases from Lake Okeechobee caused pollution problems in the river. The appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling in favor of the corps.

Reach Katrina Elsken at kelsken@newszap.com

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