Keeping tabs on the river

While this article indicates the Caloosahatchee is holding its own against algae, you can find out more about the South Florida Water Management District’s plans for Lake O at the following  online meetings:


Online Public Meetings

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Originally Published in the News-Press

Blue-green algae staying out of Caloosahatchee River with red tide season two months away

Chad Gillis / Fort Myers News-Press / Aug. 25,2020

The Caloosahatchee River and estuary are in pretty good shape this summer, although algae blooms loom inland and along the coast. 

Lake Okeechobee has been plagued by a blue-green algae bloom this summer, but it seems that algae has been contained so far this summer. 

The Department of Environmental Protection took 12 samples on the lake in last week, with six of those testing positive for blue-green, according to DEP records.

Rains have been washing off the local landscape and into the river, but it’s not as much water as the area would have seen had Hurricane Laura hit South Florida. 

Neither the Caloosahatchee or St. Lucie estuaries showed signs of blooms through Aug. 20, DEP reports. 

The stronger bloom conditions were reported by DEP to be in the northwest and northeast portions of the lake. 

Both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were connected to Lake Okeechobee decades ago to drain the historic Everglades for farming and development. 

The rivers are now used as emergency flood plains, although the Caloosahatchee River needs some flow from the lake during drier periods. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages Lake Okeechobee levels, typically keeping surface levels of the lake between 12 and 15 feet above sea level to prevent flooding, ensure water supply and meet the needs for natural systems like the Caloosahatchee. 

The surface of the lake was 14.1 feet above sea level Tuesday, according to the South Florida Water Management District. 

“It’s getting up there in that harm range, and it’s been there since (last week),” said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. “The flows are moving the salinity envelop downstream and it’s condensing the gradient between fresh and salt water.” 

So the estuary, which starts at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva, is smaller than it should be because of excess water flowing off the landscape. 

Flows at the lock were at nearly 5,000 cubic feet per second Monday, which is far too much water for the delicate estuary. 

An ideal rate here would be 1,000 cubic feet per second, some water quality scientists say. 

Dissolved oxygen levels, another water quality indicator, are in a healthy range, Cassani said. 

Lands to the north and south of the Caloosahatchee River have been modified in order to drain the land as fast and possible and and prevent flooding. 

The system is good getting rid of freshwater, water that once sat on the landscape for months or even years before slowly trickling to the Caloosahatchee and drinking water aquifers. 

Hundreds of thousands of acres have are essentially drained by the man-made system during the summer months, which leaves the river lacking for freshwater flow during dry seasons. 

The Caloosahatchee River needs a certain amount of water, at times, to help ensure ideal water salinity conditions in the downtown Fort Myers area, one location of record used to measure flows in the river. 

But too much from the lake too soon can cause the estuary to be completely blown out, with freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee blasting several miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Cassani said the river is in pretty good shape considering the time of year and the system’s recent history of massive blue-green algae blooms. 

“I’d like to think (there are fewer releases) because there’s an algae bloom in the lake and they don’t want to inoculate the river like they did in 2018,” Cassani said. 

Hurricane Laura was several hundred miles off the coast of Southwest Florida Tuesday headed toward the border of Louisiana and Texas. It is expected to make landfall Thursday morning.

Erica Skolte, spokeswoman for the Army Corps, said no water is currently being released but that the Corps will release small amounts in pulses. 

“We have not seen much algae at Moore Haven, so holding back releases due to algae hasn’t really been an issue,” Skolte said in an email to the News-Press. “If there was a large bloom at the lake at Port Mayaca (the location where the lake connects to the Caloosahatchee River), we would consider that as part of  the overall decision-making process.” 

Cassani said the area was lucky to avoid recent storms and hurricanes that have crossed the Gulf of Mexico in recent days. 

Red tide season will start within the next two months, although the area doesn’t see blooms every year. 

“A lot of rainfall on top of what we are already getting would push the salinity envelop further downstream and create more back bay nutrient loading,” he said. “And I think everybody’s kind of keeping their fingers crossed about red tide.” 

Red tide typically starts in late October or November and typically ends before the following spring. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter. 


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