Discharges to the Caloosahatchee – good or bad?

After last week’s newsletter asking if our discharge crisis was over, we got lots of feedback from readers along the Gulf coast who said the answer was “no.”

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted discharges from Lake Okeechobee east to the St. Lucie River, the Corps resumed discharges west to the Caloosahatchee, which as of April 13 averaged 2,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) for the foreseeable future.

That’s bad, right?

Well, it’s not so simple.

In announcing that discharges to the Caloosahatchee would resume, Corps officials noted that stagnant conditions in the river were leading to the growth of blue-green algae. Renewing the discharges at “beneficial” levels (around 2,000 cfs) is supposed to help flush the system.

Indeed, most people don’t realize the Caloosahatchee needs SOME water from the lake to maintain healthy salinity levels. Not enough freshwater, and salinity levels can spike, causing problems. But when releases exceed that “beneficial” 2,000 cfs — as they did for the entirety of the Feb. 17-March 30 discharge period — salinity levels can plummet.

So it’s a matter of threading the needle; too little is bad. So is too much.

With drier weather prevailing in recent weeks, Lake O has been falling, and the discharges help lower the lake. Some feel that for the sake of fairness, the Corps should send water east to the St. Lucie as well. But unlike the Caloosahatchee, which needs some water from the lake, the St. Lucie never needs it — all discharges are harmful.

Still, there’s reason to be wary. Discharges — any discharges — bring more nutrients to the Caloosahatchee. And while renewed discharges west are supposed to alleviate existing algae blooms in the estuary, algae blooms on the lake itself are sure to intensify as or weather gets warmer. That means algae-laden discharges coming into the Caloosahatchee could become a problem. At that point, will the Corps have the flexibility to close the locks, as needed, to prevent it? We’ll be asking them to.

The acute discharge crisis of February and March may be over. But until we fix our rigged system designed to favor Big Sugar over everyone else, another crisis is always right around the corner.