Audubon Florida News

Lake Okeechobee and Estuaries 2012 Dry Season: Need Common Sense Decisions for Shared Prosperity

On Thursday, April 12, 2012, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board has the opportunity to allow small releases of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee Estuary for much-needed environmental benefit.

At the March 2012 SFWMD Governing Board meeting, despite Governing Board members Daniel DeLisi and Glenn Waldman’s urging to continue small releases of water from Lake Okeechobee to sustain the Estuary’s salinity, the Governing Board decided in a 7-2 vote to cease these small releases.

The Caloosahatchee Estuary is a partially enclosed body of water on Florida’s Southwest Coast that has a free connection to the open sea and is also an endpoint for the freshwater Caloosahatchee River, creating a vibrant and diverse brackish ecosystem. Water in the Caloosahatchee River primarily comes from Lake Okeechobee. Releases from the lake through the river system are controlled and managed by the SFWMD and the US Army Corps of Engineers. During times in the dry season, small water releases are needed from Lake Okeechobee to help the delicate balance of freshwater and sea water in the Caloosahatchee Estuary.

A very small amount of water (about an inch total) released from Lake Okeechobee this April and May could sustain the Estuary’s diverse and productive estuary life, including oysters, sea grasses, and the critically endangered Smalltooth Sawfish, not to mention support the local multi-billion dollar tourism and fishing industries. As of now, these crucial water releases to the estuary have been stopped completely. If this continues, it is likely that virtually all estuarine plants and animals will be severely harmed and a full recovery may take years. There is an expected high risk of a harmful algal bloom if there is little rain in the area and no Lake inputs over the coming weeks.

With only about an inch from Lake Okeechobee needed, the releases will not significantly impact the Lake’s water levels or endangered Everglade Snail Kite habitat. Nearly all of the Kite nests reported on the Lake last week are in enough water that dry-out is not a concern for any viable nests.

This projection from the SFWMD shows only a 10% chance of any water rationing at all (dropping below the purple dashed line), but the Climate Prediction Center forecast for May through July predicts an equal chance of wet, medium, or dry weather, making the lowest 10% possibility unlikely.

According to the SFWMD weekly climate update, our rainy season (starting in June) is currently predicted to be a normal to wet season. If the driest scenario unfolded and lowered the lake that much, it would likely be of short duration. Even if a worst-case drought were to develop, against current predictions from the SFWMD weekly climate forecast, water restrictions would likely be minor.

Taking into account this year’s low risk to the Lake, growers, and Everglade Snail Kites, and the extreme stakes for the vibrant Caloosahatchee system, Audubon Florida recommends the SFWMD help the estuary by continuing small water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

Our Everglades Scientists are looking forward to working with officials to ensure that this important Everglades habitat is protected.

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