Although much is still to be done, the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau's (VCB) joint effort with local stakeholders has brought some successes. We pledge to continue our work on these and other initiatives until our water quality issues are resolved.

In particular, 2011 saw significant accomplishments in ongoing efforts regarding water quality improvements. The new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule was modified to be more favorable to the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary, and significant progress was made on the Lower Charlotte Harbor Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Plan and the Southwest Florida Feasibility Study. Nutrient Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for the Caloosahatchee River were accelerated, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed its Chief's Report for the C-43 Reservoir.

Here are additional details of just a few of the efforts supported by the VCB to improve our area's water quality:

Northern Everglades and Estuary Protection Act (NEEPA) & Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan (CRWPP)

  • The VCB, its consultants, Lee County staff, and elected officials were integrally involved in the successful passage of the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program (NEEPA) during the 2007 legislative session.
  • The legislation -- providing approximately $200 million for Everglades restoration and projects in the Caloosahatchee/St. Lucie/Lake Okeechobee watersheds and basins -- created programs and requirements similar to those already existing in the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act (LOPA), but the focus was on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
  • The legislation changed the Lake Okeechobee Protection Program to NEEPA and expanded the program to include protection of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River Watersheds. The Caloosahatchee River watershed and the St. Lucie River watershed were determined to be critical water resources of the state and resulted in the creation of a Protection Plan; Construction Project; Watershed Pollutant Control Program; and Research, Water Quality, and Habitat Monitoring Program.
  • Specifically, the legislation provided for monitoring and research programs for the coastal estuaries, projects to increase water storage opportunities on lands to alleviate harmful discharges, and annual reporting to the Florida Legislature on the progress of the legislation.
  • The legislation also created the Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan in January 2009. This signified a large commitment on the part of the State of Florida and the Governor's office to address Lake Okeechobee/Estuary issues head-on.
  • Click here to read the NEEPA legislation.
  • Click here for more information concerning the NEEPA program.
C-43 West Storage Reservoir Project
  • The C-43 project is a feature of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). This reservoir will capture and store stormwater runoff from the C-43 basin and reduce excess freshwater flow to the Caloosahatchee Estuary. It also will capture and store regulatory releases from Lake Okeechobee, reducing discharges to coastal estuaries.
  • The project would improve the ecological function of the Caloosahatchee Estuary by releasing the stored water to augment inadequate flows during the dry season. This would reduce extreme changes in salinity in the estuary caused by extreme high and low flows in the river, thereby creating a more stable aquatic habitat.
  • In Southwest Florida, the Caloosahatchee River collects the runoff and funnels the water west into the Gulf of Mexico. At the river's mouth, where fresh and salt water mix, a large, lush estuary has evolved that provides shelter and forage for an array of fish, shellfish, birds, and wildlife. When water is discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River following a heavy rain, it moves down the river and is quickly released into the Gulf. This surge of fresh water changes delicate estuarine salinity levels and harms brackish marine habitats.
  • A restudy of the 1948 flood-control project to determine how to reverse such damage led to the 30-year Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which was approved by Congress in the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (WRDA). Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) to work cooperatively with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and other federal, state and local agencies to implement CERP, provided existing flood protection is maintained and the supply of water to current users is not disrupted.
  • The purpose of the C-43 Basin Storage Reservoir project is to improve the timing, quantity, and quality of freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary. Currently, the South Florida flood control system stores water in Lake Okeechobee. Excess water is discharged when the lake rises to a level that threatens flooding, the health of the lake, or the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. This results in unnatural surges of fresh water down the river that reduce estuarine salinity levels. Alternately, during drought periods when irrigation demands are high, little or no water is being released to the river. Deprived of diluting fresh water, estuarine salinity levels rise, which can trigger die-offs of sea grasses and oysters, species that are indicators of the overall health of the estuary.
  • The C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir will be used to ensure a more natural, consistent flow of fresh water to the estuary through slow releases as needed to restore and maintain the estuary. This project also will provide water-supply benefits, some management of floodwaters, and recreation benefits.
  • The Chief Report for the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir was assigned March 19, 2010. This project was authorized and submitted to the President and Congress of the United States in April 2011 by the USACOE. The project -- located on 10,700 acres of farm land near the Caloosahatchee River in Hendry County -- features the construction of a 170,000 acre-foot storage reservoir within an embankment up to 37-feet high and a canal around the embankment perimeter. Water would be moved by a 1500cfs pump station.
  • Planning, design, land acquisition, and construction costs are estimated at $201 million, with the state and federal governments sharing the costs equally. The state designated the SFWMD as the local sponsor of this project, and construction is scheduled to be completed in spring 2011. The environmental benefits of restoration cannot be expressed solely in monetary terms; so alternative cost benefit studies are being conducted.
  • This project is vital to restoration of the Caloosahatchee River estuary. It also provides some new flexibility for managing and restoring Lake Okeechobee, which often is referred to as the "liquid heart" of the greater Everglades ecosystem.
  • To read the USACOE Record of Decision Authorizing Project, click here.
  • To read the transmittal letter to the President of the Senate, click here.
  • To read the transmittal letter to the Speaker of the House, click here.
  • To read the Office of Management and Budget letter, click here.
Adaptive Protocols for Lake Okeechobee Operations
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) manages Lake Okeechobee water levels with the goal of balancing flood control, public safety, navigation, water supply and ecological health; and it bases its operational decisions on the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS).
  • The organization implemented Adapative Protocols to provide guidance to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) staff in deciding how much, when and where to release water from Lake Okeechobee when amounts are not specified in the LORS.
  • The Protocols are meant to assist the SFWMD in balancing the needs of the environment, the lake, downstream resources, dike integrity concerns, water supply and flood protection; and they are not intended to establish, dictate or regulate water levels or operations.
  • Adaptive Protocols are implemented differently depending upon various criteria, including the level of Lake Okeechobee. They represent a scientifically based method to clarify the lake release amounts that are more beneficial when the LORS does not suggest specific release amounts.
  • Freshwater releases are critical in maintaining the health, productivity and function of the Caloosahatchee Estuary, since the mixing of freshwater with seawater establishes essential salinity levels. The releases provide much-needed support to the natural system while minimally impacting Lake Okeechobee's water level. The USACOE generally defers to the SFWMD's recommendation for water allocation, unless the releases are required for navigational purposes.
  • For a complete copy of the Adaptive Protocols document, click here.
Water Control Plan for Lake Okeechobee & Everglades Area, Water, Supply & Environment (WSE)
  • Lake Okeechobee water levels are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOA) Jacksonville District, in coordination with the South Florida Water Management District. Since the WSE regulation schedule was implemented in 2000, water managers have repeatedly been challenged by periods of unusually high precipitation and the inflexibility of the WSE to address extreme wet weather conditions.
  • The schedule delayed water managers from making releases from the Lake, resulting in high water levels that required large volume discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. The excessive discharges had devastating effects on the delicate balance of the estuaries; and the high water levels caused considerable concern for the strength and stability of the Herbert Hoover Dike, the earthen levee that encircles Lake Okeechobee.
  • As a result, the VCB and other constituents lobbied the USACOE for a revised water schedule to manage Lake Okeechobee discharges. The USACOE began a formal process to review the WSE in 2006; and, in 2008, the revised Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, commonly referred to as LORS 08, was implemented. It allows for quicker response and operational flexibility to lake conditions and tributary inflows.
  • One of the goals of the new schedule is to reduce excessive water releases to the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Canal so as not to compromise delicate estuaries. Hence, the schedule reduces the frequency of high discharges, thereby improving the environmental health of the lake and estuaries; provides for a higher level of safety to lake communities; and minimizes impacts to water supply and commercial navigation.
  • For more details on LORS, click here.
  • Water managers are listening to the public's concerns about moving more water south. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) will ultimately provide the water storage and treatment components to do this.
Southwest Florida Feasibility Study (SWFFS)
  • The VCB has helped to expedite this study, which is designed to determine the feasibility of making changes in Southwest Florida to enhance the region's environmental and water resources. Among its recommendations to Congress in July 1999, the Comprehensive Review Study for the Central & Southern Florida (C&SF) Project, known as the Restudy, recommended a Southwest Florida Feasibility Study to identify the condition of southwest Florida water resources and to develop potential solutions to any problems that may be identified.
  • The Southwest Florida Study is being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. The study area includes all of Lee County; most of Collier and Hendry Counties; and portions of Charlotte, Glades, and Monroe Counties.
  • The study encompasses approximately 4,300 square miles and includes two major drainage basins. The northern boundary corresponds to the drainage divide of the Caloosahatchee River, which also is the South Florida Water Management District/Southwest Florida Water Management District jurisdictional boundary in Charlotte County. The eastern boundary delineates the divide between the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades system.
  • The Restudy investigated operational and structural changes to the C&SF Project; but, in spite of the efforts of the Restudy, Southwest Florida still needs a comprehensive look at all the water issues it faces, not only those related to the C&SF Project. Primary water quality and hydrologic data do not exist for much of the region. This lack of primary information, assessments and monitoring data is a fundamental gap for this region of the state and greatly hinders its long-term water resources management opportunities.
  • The Southwest Florida Study is an important first step and offers the opportunity to use U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District resources to plan for proper infrastructure before or as development occurs, not after. The Southwest Florida Study, which will develop a water resources plan for the entire Southwest Florida area, will provide for ecosystem and marine/estuary restoration and protection, environmental quality, flood protection, water supply and other water-related purposes.
  • It provides a framework to address the health of aquatic ecosystems; water flows; water supply; wildlife, biological diversity and natural habitat; the region's economic viability; and property rights. The study also investigates non-structural alternatives, maximizes regional benefits through multi-purpose land use, ensures consistency with local planning initiatives, improves water quality, and protects Big Cypress National Preserve.
  • To read the Project Management Plan for the Southwest Florida Feasibility Study, click here.
Forward Pumping
  • The VCB helped bring this potential solution to the forefront of consideration and successfully pushed to have it incorporated into the Lake Okeechobee & Estuary Recovery (LOER) program.
  • Originally proposed by the staff of the South Florida Water Management District, forward pumping -- allowing water supply deliveries when the Lake is at lower levels -- was low on the radar until Lee County began pushing it as a viable option that deserved greater consideration.
  • In the midst of prior droughts, the importance of this project was demonstrated; and temporary forward pumps were permitted and constructed. This allowed additional water deliveries beyond those that would have been available due to the Lake's lowered state. The focus must now center on permanent forward pumps. Lee County Ordinance No 08-08 Regulating Landscape Management Practices
  • The VCB joined county leaders in creating an ordinance regarding landscape management practices to regulate the unrestricted application of nutrient sources such as fertilizer.
  • The ordinance, drafted in May 2008, took effect in May 2009 and encourages homeowners to follow the practices outlined and referenced in the ordinance and to seek education with the Lee County Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Landscape Program. It stipulates the application of fertilizers as well as the phosphorus and nitrogen content in them.
  • Read the ordinance.
Caloosahatchee River Subcommittee
  • The VCB helped form a subcommittee of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council to identify areas of concern, desired outcomes and desirable management strategy. Members represent Lee, Glades, Hendry and Collier Counties.
  • Through the work of this Subcommittee, four resolutions have been passed that should positively impact water quality in the watershed. The resolutions address fertilizer; wastewater; wastewater package plants; and onsite wastewater systems planning, treatment and management.
Funding for Community Budget Issue Requests (CBIRs)

The following projects were funded in the 2007 legislative session:
  • Caloosahatchee Creeks -- $350,000 was requested, and the full amount was appropriated. Located on the north shoreline of the Caloosahatchee River, this 1,290-acre site is divided into seven parcels of land with plant communities that include saltwater march, hydric hammocks and mesic flatwoods. The County provided a local match to South Florida Water Management District funds. The money was used to make hydrological improvements, enhance plant communities, exotic species removal and provide public access/educational opportunities. The project improved flows to the Caloosahatchee River.
  • Popash Creek -- $800,000 was requested, and $200,000 was appropriated. The project discharges into the Caloosatchee River and is comprised of ditches and borrow ponds, with Popash Creek itself channelized. The project restored these areas to more natural ecosystems with better wildlife habitat and increased hydrologic functionality. The County provided a local match to South Florida Water Management District funds, which was used to restore the area as well as provide hiking, birding and fishing opportunities.
  • Estero Bay Watershed Initiative -- $1,902,500 was requested, and $1 million was appropriated. The entire project area extends from the Cocohatchee Canal to the Caloosahatchee watershed, covering parts of both Collier and Lee Counties. The initiative is a combination of projects with the general goal of restoration and water quality improvements. The South Florida Water Management District was provided $1 million to retrofit existing stormwater systems to provide for water quality enhancement; restore riverine flowways; restore flows to natural system that supply aquifer recharge; and create more stormwater retention, filter marshes and habitat restoration.
The Powell Creek (North-Central Lee County) and Mulloch Creek (Southwest Lee County) projects were not funded. Both these projects would have included habitat restoration, exotic plant removal and hydrological improvements that would have reduced pollutant-loading to receiving water bodies. The $1.1 million in requested funds for the two projects would have been matched by the South Florida Water Management District to provide a total of more than $2 million to be used for restoration of these two areas.

Click here to learn about current water quality projects and ongoing initiatives.

Click here to learn details of what still needs to be done.

Future Needs

Many projects to help with Lee County’s water quality and water quantity issues already are under way, and many more soon will begin. Learn about them here.

Future Needs

Related Links

Lee County:

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:

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U.S. Army Corp of Engineers [USACOE]:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C., creates policy and plans the future direction of all the Corps organizations, or districts, that are defined by watershed boundaries. The Corp oversees project offices throughout the world.

An engineering designation for the altered Caloosahatchee River.

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