Until large projects to store, treat and convey freshwater from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades come on line, water management policy and tools to determine freshwater releases must balance the necessities of the natural ecosystem and wildlife that depend on healthy habitats with demands of water users for urban and agriculture uses.
Audubon is working with state and federal water managers to develop an important water management tool, called Adaptive Protocols for Lake Okeechobee Operations, that outlines when to hold or release water in Lake Okeechobee.
At issue is some agricultural sector demands to curtail small, beneficial water releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee Estuary during the dry season, even before they would be rationed. Audubon recommends that all interests must share the adversity of water rationing during the dry season as the only means of balancing competing demands and necessities.
The Caloosahatchee Estuary needs fresh water flows during the dry season to sustain its vital brackish water zone, which is an important nursery for fish, crabs, oysters, and other marine organisms for the Gulf Coast region. Lake Okeechobee often is the only source for these flows and an entire month of healthy flows only lowers the lake about one inch.
Yet, the SFMWD has proposed that if there is only a 30 percent chance that the lake could drop close to the water rationing line—before rationing is even triggered—that beneficial flows to the Caloosahatchee could be cut to zero. Thus, when farmers are having all their supplies met and have a cushion of water remaining, the estuary’s ecological health could be destroyed.
Audubon maintains that water flows during the dry season must be balanced to all interests, including the Caloosahatchee Estuary, and will remain vigilant to ensure that water management tools, including the Adaptive Protocols, fairly allocate freshwater between water supply and environmental needs.