Early rain events have caused water levels in Lake Okeechobee to rise unexpectedly, in turn forcing the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to start releasing water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
These water releases could create potential problems for Lee County, flushing nutrients and sediments into an estuary that's still trying to recover from similar events following Hurricane Charley.
Those nutrients - many collected in the lake from run-off from nearby agricultural communities - could damage plant and animal life in the river.
"We're losing sea grasses and it will certainly have an impact on the oyster population through a majority of the river," said Rae Ann Wessel, policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. "You add that on top of the stress from the cold snap, we're expecting to see loses in the marine habitat."
Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann said he is pleased the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers finally learned that Southwest Florida is part of a complex natural system.
While not pleased with the water releases, he said they are a realistic part of life in the local estuary, and it protects communities surrounding the lake from flooding.
"Public safety of the people that live around that lake takes priority over our critters ... from time to time our critters are going to be at risk," Mann said.
Commissioner Ray Judah said the key to these water releases is for the South Florida Water Management and the Army Corp to create storage areas for the water.
He called the situation "unfortunate," and said steps must be taken to install storage areas.
"This really speaks to the lack of storage," Judah said. "Without the proper storage, we continue to vulnerable to these adverse impacts."
Wessel echoed Judah's comments, adding that finalizing the deal for U.S. Sugar will go a long way to solving the problem permanently.
Wessel said the deal is currently being sorted out by the various parties in Florida's Supreme Court.
"It seems to be moving in the right direction," Wessel said.
Susan Jackson from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers could not be reached for comment.