Recently, Southwest Florida residents have begun to panic over the brown water invading their local piece of paradise caused by releases from Lake Okeechobee. These releases are nothing new, so why does the problem seem like a larger issue now?
The Okeechobee releases generally happen out of season during the summer. However, this past January, quick and drastic measures had to be taken. The climate cycle El Niño, which brings warm water and affects our weather patterns, caused unusually overwhelming rainfall. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to pump the excess water from Lake Okeechobee when the lake hit a level that could potentially put lives in danger from flooding.
They later admitted in an article by the Naples Daily News that they chose a bad option over a worse option. While they recognized that their methods contributed to a flawed system, the lack of general consensus has prevented them from pursuing better options. The mayors of Southwest Florida agreed that the decision to expel excess water was necessary to prevent any life-threatening flooding risks, but demand changes in the way these crises are handled in the future. The mayors are seeking more transparency and warning to prepare residents for incoming freshwater pollution to the saltwater ecosystem and desire better long-term solutions.
These releases not only turn the water an unappealing color, they also damage the local ecosystems and economy. Arriving just in time for Spring Break, this brown water is effecting the health of many local businesses. This requires an extensive tracking of damages that must be recouped by the government.
Even worse than the effect on the local economy is the damage to the sensitive saltwater ecosystems. The releases could create long-term damage to hyper-saline grass around islands like Sanibel and can kill fish, dolphins, and other sea life not fit for the brackish environment. Fishermen are not catching any fish at what should be the height of the fishing season. They report that bait fish have moved to unusual spots and that they’re catching mangled freshwater fish that are struggling to adapt to the mix of water. While Fort Myers tourism continues to receive an influx of spring breakers, eco-tourism will continue to suffer until we find a new solution.
The Lake Okeechobee releases and their negative effects on the area are nothing new. They have been a hot-button topic for years. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mentioned, it is a flawed system built in the last century and a lack of consensus on a new system has prevented them from fixing the old one. The mayors and other political figures of South Florida have begun taking action by asking for more transparency and warning to prepare citizens for the releases and to begin proposing new solutions. The proposal they currently support includes using agricultural and excess public land, located in the South Florida basin, to store the water.
United States Senator Bill Nelson has submitted a bill to take action sooner by moving forward with the Everglades Restoration Project that could help combat the current releases as well. People would like to find a solution that would not pit regions against each other, but acknowledge that everyone south of Lake Okeechobee have to share the burden together until a better system can be put into place once the weather settles down. Now that a long-term solution is finally being addressed, we can look to the future and hope for a final solution to this continuing problem.
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