Florida's coastal estuaries are impacted in varying degrees from human population growth and coastal development impacts which compromise estuarine water quality and fisheries sustainability. The communities of Southwest Florida and the Caloosahatchee Estuary are routinely impacted by freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee and excessive stormwater runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed. The latest event occurred during the winter and spring of 2015/16, at the peak of Southwest Florida's tourism season. A strong El Niño was the catalyst for record rainfall throughout south Florida which exceeded 400% of the historic average. This resulted in the releasing of billions of gallons of freshwater to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, in addition to increased runoff in the respective watersheds. During the peak of the freshwater contributions, the Caloosahatchee estuary received a daily average flow exceeding 14,000 cubic feet per second at the Franklin Lock (S-79), which is located in Alva, Fl, approximately at the midpoint between Lake Okeechobee and Punta Rassa, or roughly 40 miles downstream from the Lake (Figures 1 & 2).
These damaging flows were the result of runoff from the both the Caloosahatchee watershed and discharges from Lake Okeechobee, the largest of which were received in January and originated from the watershed between the Moore Haven Lock (S-77) and the Franklin Lock (S-79) (Figures 1 & 2).
As with past high-volume Lake releases and excessive watershed inflows in 2005-2006 and again in 2013, the excessive freshwater impacted the ecology of the Caloosahatchee estuary and coastal waters of Southwest Florida (Figure 3). This has impacted the quality of life of our residents, revenue of businesses, and it continues to have an effect on our marine environment. This problem persists because of inadequate water storage in the Kissimmee and Lake Okeechobee watersheds north of the lake, the Caloosahatchee watershed west of the lake, and the inability to treat and convey more water south into the Water Conservation Areas and Everglades National Park.
Flood control projects, channelization, and other changes that have occurred throughout Central and Southern Florida during the past century have resulted in a water management system that is unrecognizable from its original state. The prevailing engineered topography today delivers water to the coast hastily, with minimal storage and little or no time for nutrient uptake. This has resulted in the Caloosahatchee estuary receiving too much water during the typical wet season and not enough during a typical dry season. Water received can be fraught with nutrients which can encourage algal blooms, leading to degradation of aquatic habitats, environmental services, and beaches.
During the past decade, the ecology of the Caloosahatchee has continued to decline as the result of water management scenarios that provide either too much or too little clean fresh water to the estuary. More than 1,000 acres of Tapegrass has been lost in the upper estuary as a result of not being in line with ecologically-based salinity targets. In the lower estuary, oysters and seagrasses are frequently effected by too much freshwater. Recovery of these resources is dependent on reestablishing hydrology and a consistent salinity gradient throughout the estuary.
Priorities for the Caloosahatchee Estuary:
CCAFL believes certain actions can be taken by local, state and federal authorities in concert with the residents of Florida which should help the Caloosahatchee River recover from its current condition. On behalf of our members and all recreational anglers, we pledge to continue to work diligently in studying and supporting viable solutions which CCA hopes will benefit Florida's marine ecosystems.