As summer rains continue at a rapid rate across the Sunshine State, a controversy about what to do with all that water has heated up in Southwest Florida.
On Saturday, August 24, a protest of approximately 100 people was held at the Sanibel Causeway, where upset residents voiced displeasure with worsening water quality due to excessive discharges into the Caloosahatchee River.
Led by a group called "Save the Bay," the rally hoped to attract more support, but it is likely these citizens are not alone in their unhappiness.
Southwest Florida is known for access to the generally clear, blue-green Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, enabling easy enjoyment of these waters has become the region's calling card and the stellar reputation of local beaches keeps tourists coming back.
That pristine image may take a hit, however, as the Caloosahatchee carries heavy amounts of brown, murky water from Lake Okeechobee into the Gulf. Since May, over 140 billion gallons have been released into the river by the Army Corps of Engineers, while an estimated 180 billion gallons of runoff entered during the same time.
Though the river has been engineered for these purposes, this year's overwhelming releases, combined with an above-average rainy season, have contributed to estuary's inability to absorb the fresh water.
As a result, many find the quality of local waters has diminished and aerial photos lend support. Problems include a darker color, unnatural smell, and composition rich with nutrients from the farmlands of central Florida.
Just a day after the "Save the Bay" protest, an alligator washed ashore on Sanibel Island. These animals cannot tolerate saltwater, so the unexpected encounter clearly reflects altered conditions at local beaches.
Even as a reduction in the flow was recently announced, fears are mounting that the seasonal inconvenience may permanently drive away tourists and damage the ecosystem.
Though the Atlantic coast is similarly affected, the smaller Indian River absorbs less of the lake's freshwater. As the Army Corps of Engineers protects the 80+ year-old dike system that keeps "Lake O" within its banks, a majority of the water must be sent towards Southwest Florida.
With many parts of Florida receiving more than 10 inches of precipitation in August alone, the rainy season has brought an old issue to light.
A permanent solution must involve letting rising water flow south into the Everglades, which the Herbert Hoover Dike prevents. The two rivers are currently the sole means to prevent flooding of agricultural and developed lands south of the lake. That may be a worthy goal, but Southwest Floridians are making it known that their region pays a high price.
A potential short-term solution would increase releases during Florida's dry season, which would allow more water to be held in summer. With the lake serving as a popular year-round destination for sport fishing, the decision would surely prove controversial.
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