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Water Quality Update

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Recent national news reports have implied that Sanibel beaches are experiencing the same type of “guacamole” green algae conditions that are overwhelming some beach areas on Florida’s East Coast.

While our hearts — and frustration levels — go out to our east coast brethren, we wanted to assure you that the waters off the coast of Ocean’s Reach have been declared safe for swimming by the Florida Department of Health. There have been no posted warnings or advisories. These pictures were taken by Andy on July 3rd, showing holiday guests relaxing both in and out of the water.

The water quality issue, unfortunately, is not a new one. When rainfall levels cause Lake Okeechobee — located in the middle of the state — to rise significantly, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water to both eastern and western coastal estuaries.

The westward releases into the Caloosahatchee River drastically increase the amount of freshwater, fertilizers and nutrients that are eventually dumped into the Tarpon Bay estuary, impacting our water quality in the Gulf of Mexico and the beaches surrounding Sanibel Island. The result, sometimes, is a distinctively darker water color, which contrasts sharply from the color normally found in the Gulf of Mexico (you can see that is not the case currently). There is also, unfortunately, significant harm being done to our delicate eco-system, causing large-scale die-offs of local seagrass beds, which are a main source of food for many of our marine species, most notably juvenile fish and endangered manatees.

On the east coast of Florida recently, these same water releases have created giant phosphorescent plumes of green algae which have made the water unsafe for both humans and aquatic life. It is certainly heartbreaking to see the imagery on television, and it makes our own resolve for action all the stronger.

For years, citizen activist groups and local government entities here on Sanibel have been working to make our voices heard. Now in its tenth year, Sanibel H2O Matters is a great resource for comprehensive updates on our local water quality. Its website begins with the following message from Sanibel City Council:

Water is the lifeblood of Sanibel Island. It regulates the types of plants that grow on our island, it supports the diverse populations of wildlife that make Sanibel their home, it provides recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike, and it is the basis for our local economy.

Water is an integral part of daily life on Sanibel, and therefore, it is critical as stewards of this sanctuary island that we protect this important resource that defines our community. Sanibel has embraced an ecological vision that puts the natural environment at the top of its hierarchy of values. Our citizens recognize the connection between the natural environment and our quality of life and have supported policies and programs that protect and improve water quality in our own back yards. While the community has made protecting our water resources a top priority, there are influences outside of the boundaries of Sanibel that can impact the quality of our coastal waters. Decisions made as far away as Orlando, in the headwaters of the Kissimmee watershed, can affect the quality of Sanibel’s waters. Our community must remain vigilant and work closely with our State and Federal legislators to ensure that projects and policies that protect and improve Sanibel’s water quality are implemented in a timely manner.

An article in the “New York Times” published over this past weekend, written by Les Neuhaus, explained some of the intricacies of the issue, saying:

“At play are many of the forces that define modern Florida: competing environmental, residential and agricultural interests, a failure by state officials to invest in managing the demands of growth, finger pointing between state and federal officials … the result of which has been an environmental nightmare.”

“Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, said the state’s inability to close a deal to purchase thousands of acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee — to create a natural runoff from the lake into the Florida Everglades, where the diverse ecosystem could naturally filter toxins from the north — has been to blame for the problems being experienced by communities west and east of the lake. But the area south of the lake has been controlled by sugar farmers for decades, and environmentalists like Mr. Perry say state legislature in Tallahassee kowtow to agricultural lobbyists who fund their re-election campaigns.”

So the fight goes on. We’ll continue to keep you posted on any important developments. In the meantime, here are additional websites to visit should you be interested in checking on the latest Southwest Florida beach conditions:

* Beach Conditions – City of Sanibel

* Florida Healthy Beaches Program – Florida Department of Health

* Beach Conditions Report – MOTE Marine Lab

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