Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Caloosahatchee River Listed As "Most Endangered"


LABELLE, FL. -- An environmental group has today named Southwest Florida's
Caloosahatchee River as one of America's "most endangered" ten rivers .
According to the group, releases of highly-polluted water from Lake
Okeechobee by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water
Management District threaten the health of the Caloosahatchee River, which
American Rivers listed today as America's #7 most endangered river for 2006.
The annual America's Most Endangered Rivers report highlights ten rivers
facing a major turning point in the coming year, where they say action by
citizens can make a huge difference for both community well-being and river
health. American Rivers is heading a media blitz today to publicize its
rivers report, with a press briefing at the National Press Club in
Washington this afternoon and appearances by spokespersons on news shows
today.


Photo above: The Caloosahatchee River at the LaBelle bridge, an aerial photo by Don Browne.

American Rivers and its partners on the Caloosahatchee, the Caloosahatchee
River Citizens Association and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, today
called on the Corps and the SFWMD to develop and implement a proactive water
quality plan that includes specific pollution reduction targets aimed at the
source of the pollution. Drinking water for tens of thousands of people, a
world-renowned haven for birds and other wildlife, and the heart of a $2
billion local tourist economy, the Caloosahatchee is reeling from discharges
of millions of gallons of fertilizer and toxic laden water from Lake
Okeechobee into the river, says the group.

"The Corps has taken decades to turn the waters of South Florida into a
massive Rube Goldberg contraption, one that simply doesn't work," said
Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. "Now the bill has come due
and it's past time to get serious about fixing the complicated, widespread
problems along the Caloosahatchee."

According to American Rivers, successive severe hurricane seasons in recent
years have created dangerously high water levels in the lake, exacerbating
water quality problems in Lake Okeechobee by churning fertilizer-laden
sediments and re-suspending them into a trillion gallons of lake water.
Prompted by limits on storage volume, the SFWMD now regularly releases
polluted water - up to 69,500 gallons per second - from Lake Okeechobee into
the Caloosahatchee River. They say the water releases sacrifice the river's
water quality. The combination of re-suspended sediments and fertilizers
now flows regularly into the Caloosahatchee, and eventually reaches San
Carlos Bay. American Rivers claims that this leads to algal blooms that
deplete dissolved oxygen, block sunlight, clog boat intakes, and produce
fish-killing toxins and the toxins are also a threat to human health.

"The Caloosahatchee is the lifeblood of all of Southwest Florida," said Mary
Rawl of the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association. "The crisis point is
right now and we cannot continue to let the river be a disposal conduit of
last resort for Central and South Florida."

The report calls on the Corps to ensure that water discharges are managed to
dramatically reduce the devastating impacts to the Caloosahatchee as they
finalize a new discharge schedule by January 2007. At the same time, the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must ensure that any new water management
plan complies strictly with the Endangered Species Act, while the Corps and
SFWMD develop and implement a water quality plan that includes specific
pollution reduction targets that address pollution flowing into Lake
Okeechobee, as well as that flowing out of the lake into the Caloosahatchee.

It is expected that a legal battle will develop between the environmental
groups and the SWFWMD and its partner the Army Corp of Engineers, with local
governments split between the two sides. Coastal counties, Lee, Collier, and
Charlotte will want the water releases from Lake Okeechobee regulated
better, while inland counties like Hendry and Glades will fight for the
interests of it large agricultural landowning taxpayers, like U.S. Sugar and
Alico.

"We have reached a pivotal time in the business of water management for Lake
Okeechobee," said Erick Lindblad of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation
Foundation. "The system of structures and the policies which guide their
use can no longer provide for the protection of the environment so crucial
to the economy of Central and South Florida."

"The problems of the Caloosahatchee River can be solved if federal, state,
and local regulators work together to obtain more surficial storage, treat
more water, and time releases to mimic natural water flow," said Andrew
McElwaine, President and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Other rivers named in this year's America's Most Endangered Rivers report
are: Pajaro River (Calif.), Upper Yellowstone River (Mont.), Willamette
River (Ore.), Salmon Trout River (Mich.), Shenandoah River (Va. & W. Va.),
Boise River (Idaho), Bristol Bay (Alaska), San Jacinto River (Tex.), Verde
River (Ariz.).

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