The recent algal bloom in the Caloosahatchee River has seemingly gone away, but citizens and conservationists alike continue to draw attention to water mismanagement they say made the problem worse.
Water samples collected by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation are still turning up blue-green algal samples, as well as elevated levels of chlorophyll. According to Rae Ann Wessel, director of natural resource policy for the group, both are signs that the problem hasn’t dissipated.
“I’m concerned because the ‘No Swimming, No Fishing’ signs have been taken down, but I’m scared for the people eating the fish that comes out of there,” she says. “Many say that the bloom has disappeared, that it was simply brought on by drought and it left with the rain. … Let’s be clear: You don’t have a toxic algal bloom without nutrients in the water column, and the nutrients that cause toxic algal blooms don’t just ‘disappear.’ They might move from one place to another, but they don’t disappear.”
Wessel says the recent drought conditions in South Florida made it ripe for an algal bloom, but the problem was exacerbated by decisions made by the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. The agencies are both tasked with making decisions about water releases from Lake Okeechobee into the river.
As previously reported by the Florida Independent, the South Florida Water Management District estimates that 1.3 inches of lake water went into the Caloosahatchee during April and May and that the Everglades Agricultural Area (home to U.S. Sugar, among other agricultural interests) received around 15 inches. To many residents of Alva, a small town in Southwest Florida that suffered financially as a result of the bloom, it seems like the District and Corps chose industry needs over everyday citizens.
“Public water should first and foremost go to the natural system, and then what’s leftover should go toward consumptive use permits,” says Wessel, referring to industry interests that operate in the Everglades Agricultural Area. She adds that the Water Management District essentially “gave away” water it didn’t have, due to the drought. “The real problem is that the District reissued 20-year consumptive use permits without first establishing a water budget. That’s like saying, ‘I can’t be out of money. I still have checks left.’”
Wessel says state lawmakers are also doing a shoddy job of protecting state waters. State Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, represents Alva but has aligned himself with many of the industries that are partly responsible for the nutrient-laden waste that creates toxic algal blooms. In a recent interview with the Independent, he called the nutrient issue a “multi-factorial” one that had many culprits and can’t be solved with a one-size-fits-all approach like the EPA’s recently drafted “numeric nutrient criteria.”
“He doesn’t really understand or represent the interests of a great deal of this area,” says Wessel. “And, frankly, I don’t believe he has taken the time to really hear our concerns. He also doesn’t live here, so he doesn’t see it firsthand. It’s not affecting his property values.”
Wessel is a staunch supporter of the numeric nutrient criteria, and says that the lawmakers who dismiss their needs are ”either not well-informed, or they have bought into the misinformation that’s been provided them.”
“State law does dictate that natural systems be considered first; the water leftover can be divided among consumptive users,” she says. “Water management districts are responsible to equitably share and deliver water to both the natural system and the agricultural interests. There’s this idea of ‘No Farmer Left Behind’ in the state of Florida, and the system is collapsing as a result.”