Image source: Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Memorandum, Caloosahatchee & Estuary Condition Report released June 11, 2019
Here we are, living out a beautiful Florida summer—one that’s defined by our iconic vibrant water, reports of incredible fishing, and the return of visitors to our beaches.
Thoughts of last year’s “lost summer” are but a distant memory. We breathe a sigh of relief, but clean water now doesn’t mean the problems have been resolved and the same threats that destroyed our water still remain.
Why is our water quality vastly different this year? What’s being done to prevent future disasters? In this post, we’ll look back at a few of the factors that contributed to the 2018 water crisis, how things were different in 2019, and future prevention efforts.
Disclaimer: This information is intended to illustrate that 1) Florida’s water quality issues are multi-faceted, 2) the sequence of variables that affect water quality is ever-changing, and 3) there is a solution.
There is not a singular cause of our water quality issues. In 2018, Florida experienced a chain of worst-case events, circumstances, and actions, that led to a disasterous situation for estuaries around the state. Some factors are within control, some are uncontrollable, and some are consequential, but combined, they all impact our water quality. The better you understand this relational concept, the better-suited you are to form your own opinions and perspectives on future issues.
A Look Back
In July 2018, we were neck-deep in the worst water crisis Florida has arguably ever experienced. Record rainfall, massive discharges of polluted fresh water, and a questionably-motivated water management district, all combined to help fuel this widespread water quality disaster.
Toxic blue-green sludge suffocated our waterways and red tide lingered for months, leaving dead marine life scattered along 300 miles of Florida coastline. Businesses suffered, vacations were cut short and cancelled, residents feared for their health, and Florida made national headlines—and not in a good way.
- CNN: Florida’s red tide has produced 2,000 tons of dead marine life and cost businesses more than $8 million
- The Weather Channel: Florida’s Blue-Green Algae Bloom 10 Times Too Toxic to Touch, Testing Shows
- Forbes: Why Is Florida Experiencing Its Most Toxic Algae Bloom In A Decade?
- The New York Times: Algae Bloom in Florida Prompts Fears About Harm to Health and Economy
- Bloomberg Businessweek (incredible photos): Toxic Slime Is Ruining Florida’s Gulf Coast
- NBC News: Toxic red tide is making Floridians sick — and angry
- Fox News: Blue-green toxic algae invades Florida river
Just to name a few. While there are still many issues impacting water quality around the state, the magnitude to which our waters improved in a year is astounding. To better understand the 2018 water crisis versus a year of relatively good water, here is a chart highlighting a few key factors that collectively impacted our water quality.
2018 and 2019 Key Factors Impacting Water Quality
South Florida Water Management District
- The powerful, tax-levying agency responsible for protecting and managing our water resources.
Governing board serving special interests.
The previous governing board made decisions that favored special interests over the public, such as renewing a lease with Florida Crystals for land slated for the EAA Reservoir.
Public outrage prompted a spotlight on their actions and the demand for their resignations.
Governing board serving the public.
A new board was appointed as a result of public demand and is now made up of individuals who share our concerns, making significant strides to protect our water quality.
Fort Myers levels shown as sample
- Rainfall directly affects the water level in Lake Okeechobee.
- Florida rainy season is May through October.
Above average rainfall.
12.77 ” in May (normal 2.64″)
Lake levels jumped 6 feet in 2017, largely due to Hurricane Irma, followed by heavy rainfall in May 2018.
5.57” in May
Brought no significant or unexpected water level changes.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Water management strategy
- Attempts to keep Lake Okeechobee level between 12.5 to 15.5 feet.
- Currently manages lake level by discharging “excess” water to the coast via Caloosahatchee & St. Lucie Rivers.
- Water is discharged at a rate measured in cubic feet per second (cfs).
- 500 to 1,000 cfs = desired flow for Caloosahatchee River, needed to balance salinity.
- 0 cfs = desired flow for St. Lucie River.
Began high-volume discharges June 1, continued through summer.
3,000 to 7,800 cfs to Caloosahatchee
Up to 1,800 cfs to St. Lucie
Heavy rainfall and high lake levels, combined with a fear of more rain, led to massive discharges throughout the summer.
2,800 cfs is the high-flow “ecological harm threshold” established by water managers for the Caloosahatchee.
USACOE later admits to knowingly releasing water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers containing toxic cyanobacteria and harmful algal blooms.
Began low-volume discharges in February, minimized need for high-volume discharges during rainy season.
1,500 to 1,800 cfs to Caloosahatchee
250 to 500 cfs to St. Lucie
Low rainfall and low lake levels maintained by low-volume releases, mitigated need for high-volume summer discharges.
Blue-green algal blooms visible on Lake Okeechobee, but no visible cyanobacteria at sample testing sites. The lower rate of discharges has helped prevent toxic algae from reaching the coastal estuaries.
Known as Karenia brevis (K. brevis)
- A naturally-occuring algal bloom that originates offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Depletes oxygen in the water and releases toxins that kill marine life and may cause illness to humans.
- Sustained by nutrients from pollution sources.