Lake Okeechobee’s water release and the effects on our ecosystem
Over the course of the last three months, I have walked upon many different ecosystems and seen first-hand the impact of our every decision has made to our ecosystems. The First location I visited was the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW) in Southwest Florida. This watershed is over 60,000-acre watershed that provide a multitude of various benefits to our ecosystem such as being a natural aquifer and water purification system. CREW is the largest watershed in all Southwest Florida that consists of swamps, marshes and rivers that contain our drinking water supply. CREW is also home to many species such as the Black Bear, panther, alligator, birds and other various wildlife. The project began in 1989 after the Lee County commission applied for the Save Our Rivers Program due to wells running dry in Lee County. The entire CREW Project spans over 50,000+ acres. “Protecting this land provides a place for water to slowly seep in to the ground, recharging the aquifer with drinking water. It also allows water to spread out and flow across the land where vegetation can filter pollutants out of the water before it reaches the Gulf. In addition to providing for clean water, protecting this land also makes available habitat for wildlife and recreation lands for the public” (Crew, 2016). Crew is primarily a marsh and a wetland. A wetland is an area where water covers the soil year most of the year. A marsh is a wetland that stays flooded throughout various times of the year. You can see the marsh pictured below (it’s the one with the pink umbrella).
The next location we visited was Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve. This preserve is 11 Miles and 3,500 acres of wetland that provides drainage from runoff water after heavy rainfalls. The water then flows out to the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve which helps to keep our waterways, especially the Gulf of Mexico, in good health. As we walked down the boardwalk we went through wetlands that were dry in some areas and completely underwater in other. The activity in the Slough was very high. We ran across many water moccasins, butterflies, and even a wild boar. The Slough is also home to many other keystone species such as the Sleeping Screech Owls, River Otters and The Bob Cat. Alligators play a key role in this ecosystem due to the holes that they dig. In the dry season these holes retain water and provide essential nutrients to their ecosystem. Black bears disperse the seeds of the fruit that they eat. It just goes to show you that each of these animals exist in these environments for a purpose. Their daily habits equate to a healthy ecosystem. You can often see the impact that human beings have on this ecosystem bases on the health of the animals inside the ecosystem.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve was the motherload of all the conservatory’s that we had seen. Rookery Bay is a research department that has over 570 study sites and monitoring programs. Scientists from all over the world travel here to conduct experiments and study the effects on our wildlife and ecosystem. With over 70,000 acres of open waters, many of the study’s conducts include identifying which species live here and how our water quality is impacted by the health of the species. Fisheries are one of the biggest studies at the Bay. An assessment of the fisheries is conducted 6 times a year by using a trawl net to inspect fish, microalgae and marine invertebrates. This study helps to identify what type of fish we have in our estuaries and how our water health is progressing. The estuary is home to a multitude of species including plankton, crustaceans, frogs, exotic plants and mangrove forest. One of the coolest things I saw was Moon Jellyfish. I learned that during certain months the entire waterway system is filled with Moon Jellyfish creating a white cloud across the water.
Lastly we visited my favorite and probably the most unknown ecosystem in Florida, Barefoot Beach Preserve. I say this because most people do not consider a beach to have an ecosystem but it is the ecosystem! Marine Ecology is essentially the largest ecosystem in the world with over 70% of the earth’s surface being covered by water. Barefoot Beach Preserve is 340+ acres of raw land. Besides the 8200 feet of beach and sand dunes you will find a tropical ecosystem here. Walking through the trails we saw many plants and trees like the Sabal Palm, Gumbo-Limbo Sea Grapes, and even Wild Coffee. One of the most interesting things I learned about the ecosystem was just how many Shell varieties there were. I think I may have been blind my whole life. I didn’t realize that each shell possesses a pattern. It could be a combination of ridges, shapes and stripes. If you were to have asked me before how many shell types, there where I may have said 100 but there is estimated to be around 200,000 types of seashells. The Gopher Tortoises have made their home in the Preserve and is one of the most important species at this preserve. Gopher Tortoise are only found in the lower Coast Plains from South Carolina to Louisiana and throughout Florida. Gopher Tortoise prefer well drained sandy ecosystems to build their burrows. Similar to the alligator they build very deep burrows that the extensive wildlife are able to utilize for their nutrients. Osprey’s are another keystone creature that you can often find at the Preserve. This is due to the osprey being at the very top of the food chain. If these species were to decline in population this would indicate a very big problem in our ecosystems.
This leads me to my original question. What impact does Lake Okeechobee’s discharge have on the surrounding environment?
You may be asking why I am discussing other ecosystems when I am supposed to be talking about Lake Okeechobee. What I want you to realize is they are all connected. What you do to one ecosystem inevitability affects the surrounding ecosystems. It is no secret our South West Florida community is experiencing an ecological setback due to Lake Okeechobee’s water release. Lake Okeechobee is Florida’s largest freshwater lake in Florida and the 7th largest freshwater lake in the United States. The lake stretches over 730 square miles and is roughly the size of Rhode Island. Surprisingly, this lake is exceptionally shallow with an average depth of 9 ft. Lake Okeechobee provides a habitat for fish, birds, otters and other wildlife. In 1930’s the U.S. Army Corps of engineers built the Herbert Hoover Dike after a Storm rose the lakes water levels drowning thousands of people. “Over seven years, the Corps built a series of levees, culverts and locks to encompass the lake, including 67 miles of dikes along the southern shore. In 1938, the Corps began to regulate lake levels between 14 and 17 feet.” (SWFMD). The Corps to this day attempt to maintain a water level between 12.5 and 15.5 feet. The Corps began releasing water due to the water level rising so rapidly. “The lake’s water level can rise up to six times faster than water can be discharged. By initially prescribing low-volume release that have greater impact on coastal estuaries. However, if inflows and levels continued to increase, large releases are required. “In 2007, during a drought, state water and wildlife managers removed thousands of truckloads of toxic mud for the lake’s floor, in an effort to restore the lake’s natural sandy base and create clearer water and habitat for wildlife. The mud contained elevated levels of arsenic and other pesticides” (SWFMD). Fast forward to 2013. Central Florida received heavy rains which cases the lake levels to rise above the maximum value. This caused the Army Corps of Engineers to release large volumes of polluted water into the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie Rivers. This mixture of freshwater and salt water resulted in a vast damage to our ecosystem. Over 746 m3/yr of water from Lake Okeechobee’s water was released into our rivers. Again in February 2016, the water levels rose to over 16 ft. The Corp has a hard decision to make. The water will naturally run south and possibly threaten the flood crops and lakeside town. This was the case in the most recent water release. They decided to have the water run north. This is called Back Pumping and carries with it pesticides and fertilizers. This alone has massive impact on our wildlife as we experience toxic algae blooms and infiltrate drinking water supplies and the local fish we eat. At normal water levels, the water from the runoff helps to irrigate the sugar cane and rice fields that are in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The runoff produces 2.6 billion gallons a day towards our Fort Myers communities and up to 1.2 billion gallons a day towards the Stuart community. The effects of the water can clearly be seen. From the shoreline you can see where the runoff has invaded our waters. The beach now large brown spots often seen with dead floating fish. The water is dark due to stirred up sediment. This water release has also brought our bacteria to dangerously high levels. Our oysters have already been impacted. Oysters are keystone species. They filter water and maintain our water systems. The ecosystem suffered such a great loss that on February 26th the Government declared a state of emergency for Fort Myers and Stuart.
We can see the effects of this first hand at Barefoot Beach which has unfortunately received all the harmful effects from the overflow of Lake Okeechobee. Osprey population is on a decline. Remember when I mentioned that we could see the effects of the health of our ecosystem through the health of the Osprey. Bacteria Ridden water has impacted marine life of all kinds. We can clearly see how this effects our tourism by creating murky waters but what we can’t see is that this tainted water is killing off one of our biggest sources of water purification, the oyster. Dead fish can often be found floating in the water. Dolphins, manatee, and other larger sea life has also washed upon the shore. Seagrass which provides foods for manatees are killed off almost instantly when the contaminated water came into our waters. Algae Blooms are at very high levels. This algae bloom is so large it can be seen from Space. Algae Blooms are also very harmful if ingested. The overflow from Lake Okeechobee follows a path through all the water systems I have recently visited. Each of the ecosystems and keystone species are effected in very harmful ways. When the bacteria is present all of the bottom feeders quickly die off which are a source of food for fish. The fish are sources of food for sharks, whales and other larger wildlife. The ground soaks up nutrients from surrounding water poisoning certain plants and trees. Oysters are no longer able to purify the water and coral reefs are dyeing at an alarming rate. The death of Coral Reefs would completely alter the ecosystems as we know it. When one species dies all the remaining species are affected by the life cycle. If one species food source dies, they too will perish. This routine would keep repeating itself until top predators like the Osprey are completely wiped out. The effects of damage on our marine ecosystem directly control the surrounding ecosystems. So the question remains what are we going to do about it. Governor Rick Scott has Declared a state of Emergency and is working with the Army Corp of Engineers to come up with a less invasive schedule but I ask you, what part will you play in keeping our ecosystems safe?
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