Lake Okeechobee is often referred to as the “liquid heart” of Florida. Unfortunately, over the years, the Lake has become heavily polluted by run-off from agriculture and development in Central & South Florida.
As it was designed in 1947 to avoid flooding south of the lake, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are the two “safety valves” of the system during high water events. Water from Lake Okeechobee is now routinely discharged to these rivers and sent to tide in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. This practice is also starving Florida Bay of the freshwater it naturally received through the historic Everglades.
In the wet season, massive amounts of nutrient polluted water is now being sent to the Caloosahatchee River. This nutrient rich water is exacerbating harmful algal blooms of increasing scope and frequency.
The federal Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the Lake’s operation. The Corps’ operational manuals consider public safety and many other objectives set forth by the state’s South Florida Water Management District.
Minimum Flows & Levels
To complicate matters for the Caloosahatchee, our brackish water estuary thrives with a certain amount of freshwater sustaining Vallisneria tape grass near Fort Myers. When dry season rainfall is not enough to suppress salinity levels, tape grass die-offs occur.
As a result of these two seasonal swings, and water mismanagement by government agencies, the Caloosahatchee often suffers from too much freshwater in the wet season, and not enough freshwater in the dry season.
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The U.S. ACOE is releasing Lake Okeechobee water to the Caloosahatchee River again, but these discharges are expected to help the river and estuary. An extremely dry September caused SWFL to end up several inches below normal for precipitation. The dry spell caused the Army Corps to start releases.
John Cassani flew in a small airplane over Moore Haven on Saturday and noticed the Moore Haven lock was open. “The lock was wide open. Which means the water can leave the lake and come into the river directly through the lock chamber,” Cassani said.
The U.S. ACOE acknowledged it has released water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers that has contained toxic cyanobacteria. In a hearing about the releases from Lake Okeechobee, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast questioned Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon of the Corps.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now warning boaters about toxic cyanobacteia, also called blue-green algae, in Lake Okeechobee and the 154-mile Okeechobee Waterway, which includes the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
The Center for Biological Diversity joined forces with Calusa Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, Bullsugar and Save the Manatee Club to submit scoping comments for the ACOE’s review regarding an upcoming revision to the Lake Okeechobee System Operations Manual.
“Once again, the Caloosahatchee estuary is going to get the short end of the stick,” Cassani said. “I mean, we’ve been at this for 18 years … With the empirical evidence presented, it’s maddening that the administrative law judge would not see the shortfall in what the district had revised the rules to.”
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