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Water from Lake Okeechobee and rainfall within the Caloosahatchee watershed are causing water quality issues in the river's estuary.

Wochit

Florida toxic algae: Lake Okeechobee releases cause concerns about water quality, blooms

Updated 02:27 pm EST Mar. 1, 2019 Originally published 04:20 pm EST Feb. 28, 2019

Lake Okeechobee releases started again last week, and the results are a mixed bag for the Caloosahatchee River and its delicate estuary. 

The volume of water is not concerning to many local environmental groups, but they do question the quality of water coming from the big lake.

"I don’t have any problem with those flow rates coming out of Franklin Lock," said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. "(But) part of the uncertainty is if the discharges bring algal biomass, hopefully not, cyanobacteria, into the river. People are worried we're going to see another bloom."

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Lee County Hyacinth Control District aquatic technicians Jeremy Ford and William Colon distribute a herbicide in a Cape Coral canal to control spatterdock plants that are blocking part of the canal.

Amanda Inscore/The News-Press

Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva is the demarcation line between the brackish estuary and the upstream freshwater conditions. 

The releases are being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and have reached as high as 2,800 cubic feet per second at the lock. 

The river was plagued last summer by a particularly nasty, toxic blue-green algae bloom that caused waters to turn into an avocado-colored stew. 

Bloom conditions started on Lake Okeechobee in June and soon spread to the Caloosahatchee. 

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The hope this year is that releases now will help avoid harmful discharges during the summer when blue-green algae is most prevalent. 

"I think the goal is to prevent high discharge rates during the summer," Cassani said. "The salinity was getting into the upper limit (in the estuary). It’s back down and if they can sustain that salinity level a little longer it might allow the grass to recover a little, to sustain it until the next dry season." 

Army Corps spokesman John Campbell said the Corps wants to lower the lake between now and the next rainy season, which starts in late May or early June. 

"There’s not a specified goal," Campbell said. "We want to get it lower. We feel that this year in particular offers us a chance to get the lake lower, and that will be good for a couple of reasons. The lake has been relatively high the past few years. We had the El Nino in 2016 that took it to 16.4 feet. In 2017 we did see some good recession. It did get down to 11 feet but Hurricane Irma brought it back up to 17 feet."

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Typically, the Army Corps aims to keep the surface of Lake Okeechobee between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level to protect lives and property south of the lake while also supplying water to agriculture operations and urban areas. 

Campbell said releasing water from the lake and lowering surface levels will allow aquatic plants to regenerate, which would help the overall water quality of the lake and water that's released from it. 

Rae Ann Wessel, with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said she would like to see the lake drop another foot or more. 

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"We have been since October asking the Corps to get the lake down to 11 feet by June 1 to really drop the lake so we can start to suppress and get out all the organic material that got stirred up by Irma," Wessel said. "It isn’t healthy for the lake and isn’t healthy for the aquatic system (downstream) at all."

Campbell said the releases will also help the Corps prepare for the upcoming hurricane season. 

"If we get an early season rain event we’re not automatically thinking of releases to accommodate the wet season," Campbell said. 

Connect with this reporter: ChadGillisNP on Twitter. 

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A paddle through the Northern Everglades with News-Press reporters Chad Gillis and Andrew West

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Originally published 04:20 pm EST Feb. 28, 2019 Updated 02:27 pm EST Mar. 1, 2019
Chad Gillis
Environmental Reporter
Fort Myers News-Press
A Royal Bahamian potcake lover, Chad Gillis is a hillbilly: Scotch-Irish born in the South. He studied English and audio engineering at a four-letter college and holds a minor in public speaking. He moved to Florida in 1999, camping for months before taking a job at the Naples Daily News. An outdoors writer for the News-Press, Gillis lives in San Carlos Park with his wife, Marcie, a yoga and paddleboard instructor. 
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