The Committee of the Islands members and guests got an eye-opening look at what is in store for the Caloosahatchee River Estuary in the near and distant future.
Daniel DeLisi, member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board since May 2011, addressed the group's annual meeting at The Community House on March 22. His message was that progress is being made, but is a frustratingly slow process that likely will take many, many years before the health of the estuary is fully restored.
"The construction of the Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir is one step toward a long term goal," said DeLisi. "Our only way out of this mess is to partner with other state groups to come up with imperfect solutions to get on the way to our end goal."
Photo courtesy of CHRISTOPHER KOERNER
Daniel DeLisi, South Florida Water Management District board member, addresses the annual meeting of the Committee of the Islands about Caloosahatchee River Estuary issues.
The "mess" is rooted in the decision in the 1880s to drain the Everglades and redirect the water for development and agricultural purposes.
At that time, the Caloosahatchee River was not connected to Lake Okeechobee designed to stop water from moving south. Once connected to Lake O by a series of canals, the on-again, off-again flows downstream to Lee County has been devastating to the environment. Too much water flowing into the Caloosahatchee hurts the health of the estuary. During dry spells, too little water is released.
The C-43 Reservoir Project is a 170,000 acre-foot storage project set on 10,000 acres of former farmland in Hendry County west of LaBelle to help alleviate the fight over damaging releases. SFWMD acquired the land and has completed construction of reservoir test cells as well as designing the levee construction. Permits have been issued, but actual construction of the reservoir could take years.
"It's 170,000 acre-foot of storage, but the estuary needs more than 450,000 acre-foot of storage, but we can't buy our way out of this," said DeLisi. "We are now getting a positive dialog and making progress. We need C-43 online."
The C-43 Reservoir will capture and store stormwater runoff as well as store federal regulatory water releases from Lake Okeechobee. During dry season, the project will provide fresh water and nutrients to the estuary that supports recreational and commercial fisheries. It aims to eliminate the destructive massive water releases from Lake Okeechobee of several years ago that caused algae blooms and fish kills in the Caloosahatchee all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and Sanibel.
"We learned a lot after Hurricane Charley in 2004," said Committee of the Islands president Barbara Cooley. "After Charley great harm came to our community with massive releases."
The Caloosahatchee estuary took a major hit recently when the SFWMD governing board voted 7-2 against releasing beneficial releases to the river for the next 30 days when the Lake O water level dips below a standard already established.
Despite last year's destructive toxic algae blooms that occurred when all releases were cut off, the board voted to do it again even though other water users are not restricted.
DeLisi, one of the two votes to release water, admitted he has had an education since his appointment.
"We need to tone down the rhetoric and look for creative solutions," said DeLisi.
In addition to projects like the C-43 reservoir, some solutions include a water storage effort that pays agricultural landowners to store water on their properties to mitigate seasonal flooding; and water filtering systems that retain water until needed, such as one now operating in Lehigh Acres.
The Committee of the Islands also elected officers and board members. Board members David Bath, Barbara Cooley, Mike Gillespie, Claire Mallon, Bud Reinhold and Larry Schopp were elected to serve a second two-year term. Cooley was elected to continue serving as president, Gillespie as vice president, Reinhold as treasurer and Bath as secretary.
Information about the committee is available online at www.coti.org.