Sanibel Island elected officials and regional environmentalists attending a meeting of the South Florida Water Management District in Fort Myers on Feb. 13. voiced their concerns about the management of water from Lake Okeechobee.
The SFWMD's governing board rotates among meeting locations in its 16-county district and had scheduled time in Fort Myers last week. Officials pointed out to the governing board that Lee County -with a population of 650,000 people- generates $2.7 billion a year in tourism revenue and issues of water quality would devastate that industry, which employs one-fifth of all residents.
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane addressed the governing board during public comment to describe how 2013 was especially challenging, specifically pointing to flows that were 2.5 times higher than targeted levels and discolored plumes that stretched 13 miles from the beach.
"These flows not only impacted the ecology, but most important to many of us, the economy," said Ruane. "Really, the thing that gets affected the most is consumer confidence."
News that Sanibel Island and Lee County were experiencing water quality issues spread quickly across the Internet, he said. Ruane was receiving phone calls from visitors as far away as Germany who said they heard that the water was brown and were concerned about visiting the beaches.
Once consumer confidence drops, he said, the tourists won't be visiting, new homes won't get sold or built, and retail establishments will suffer.
Rae Ann Wessel, director of Natural Resource Policy at the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, said the Caloosahatchee Estuary has experienced several years of extremes, which damaged the ecosystem but proved to be valuable for scientists studying the issue.
She told the governing board that it was time to develop new, balanced protocols for freshwater releases, or what is referred to as a "sweet spot" between ideal wet and dry conditions.
"We are interested in working with the district on developing protocols for low water flows," said Wessel.
Florida Gulf Coast University recently hosted the Caloosahatchee Science Workshop where scientists came together to discuss ecological indicators, gaps in data or research, and priorities in the science of water quality. They expressed that the current science was too disjointed to make changes within the system and met to gain some common ground.
Jennifer Hecker, director of Natural Resource Policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said there is enough information available and the science exists to identify new and appropriate flow rates.
"Right now it's (Caloosahatchee Estuary) being greatly damaged by mismanagement," said Hecker. "We need to move towards implementation of a comprehensive strategy."
Kurt Harclerode, operations manager for Lee County Natural Resources, added that the release schedules need more flexibility for "beneficial releases" or when areas receive the benefit of additional water even though they aren't on the district's schedule.
"We think there can be more flexibility in the regulation schedule," said Harclerode.
Dr. Michael Parsons from the Coastal Watershed Institute at FGCU said the problem with water flows is that it's too much during the wet season and too little during the dry season, and as a result the ecosystem is suffering. Tape grass populations in the upper part of the Caloosahatchee River are decreasing and that is known to affect the populations of other species in the food chain, such as the Florida manatee.
A total of 829 manatees a record-setting amount died last year. Scientists suspect that a number of deaths were contributed to red tide and other unforeseen changes to the local ecosystem.
The SFWMD later voted unanimously to reserve all of the water in the Caloosahatchee River C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir for the protection of fish and wildlife in the river, but those changes won't significantly impact Southwest Florida until the U.S. Congress authorizes funding to complete the reservoir.