Take a look at these photos from Friends of the Everglades Multimedia Producer Leah Voss. The images from a recent visit to Sanibel Island offer a sobering look at a community still very much in distress after Hurricane Ian made direct landfall along Florida’s west coast on September 28. Much of the island remains off limits to visitors as the local population continues the hard work of recovery.

The latest threat exacerbating the post-storm situation hangs heavy in the air and the surrounding water — red tide. Along the shoreline, Leah described a nauseating smell and an unmistakable tickle at the back of her throat. A dead seabird laid in the sand, among the thousands of dry and rotting fish she found. 

Though these harmful algal blooms originate offshore, NASA satellite imagery from early October documented large quantities of dark stormwater, likely carrying nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, as it exited the landscape in the aftermath of the storm. These nutrients help to sustain and intensify red tide blooms that move inshore with wind and current. 

For weeks, the Army Corps of Engineers has authorized discharges to the Caloosahatchee from Lake Okeechobee to help bring down the lake level. Though the lake releases to the Caloosahatchee help keep salinities in the optimal range for species like tape grass and eastern oysters, we also know that they add to the nutrient-pollution load of area waterways which are already stressed. Research has shown Lake O releases fuel existing red tide blooms.

There’s a better alternative. Now, during the dry season, is the right time to send clean water south to rehydrate the Everglades. Sending clean water south now helps alleviate the need to discharge large amounts of water to the northern estuaries at a time later in the year, when toxic algae may be present. If there is no room to accommodate movement of water into southern stormwater treatment areas (which clean the water), we should be asking: Why not? And what steps do we need to take to ensure their capacity is not compromised by over-prioritizing the drainage of hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane south of Lake Okeechobee?  

As west coast communities continue to reel from the effects of Hurricane Ian, and for as long as red tide blooms remain intense off the coast of Lee County, it is critical that water managers avoid additional nutrient loading that could exacerbate red tide in favor of sending clean water south where it is needed instead.