Emergency Lake O water releases underway

Posted at 8:37 PM, Feb 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-05 20:55:44-05

The Army Corps of Engineers is sending more dirty lake water down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee, in an effort to relieve high water levels from record rainfall. The big lake's level was at 16 feet, it's highest level since 2005. Previous water releases have already discolored the Caloosahatchee River, as well as the area where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Jennifer Hecker, Director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said that the water releases from Okeechobee bring more than just brown water. She said that the releases also carry bacteria, nutrient pollution and changes in salinity that aquatic life downriver can't handle.

"That can cause oysters to die off, sea grasses to die off," Hecker said. "The nutrients can suck the dissolved oxygen out of the water to the point that fish can no longer breathe."

She said that the water from Okeechobee needs to be diverted south of the big lake - which means acquiring agricultural lands to make it happen.

"Ultimately we need to move this water back to where it historically belongs, which is to the Everglades and Florida Bay, which desperately need this water," Hecker said.

She said that she's optimistic that solutions can be implemented to eliminate the need to dump lake runoff into the Caloosahatchee.

"When we do that, we'll see our river and estuary return to the gorgeous, clear blue sandy-bottom river and estuary that it used to be," Hecker said.

She said that two legislative bills - the Legacy Florida bill at the state level, and the Everglades For The Next Generation Act at the federal level, would provide more funding for Everglades restoration to lessen the need to release Lake Okeechobee runoff water into the river.