Lake Okeechobee draining will be reduced to combat coastal algae blooms

By Andy Reid, Contact Reporter
July 14, 2016
Sun Sentinel

To combat foul-smelling, toxic algae blooms plaguing coastal communities, officials decided Thursday to drain less water from Lake Okeechobee and spend nearly $3 million on emergency measures.

algaeMonths of draining the lake to guard against flooding in South Florida has dumped billions of gallons of water a day toward the east and west coasts — hurting fishing grounds in normally salty estuaries and fueling an inundation of bright green toxic algae that creates a human health risk.

The Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday announced that the lake level has dropped enough to reduce the draining about 44 percent to the hard-hit east coast, cutting discharges into the St. Lucie River to about 420 million gallons per day.

Higher-volume lake draining through the Caloosahatchee River toward Fort Myers on the west coast — which this year hasn’t been as susceptible to algae blooms — is being dialed back 6 percent to about 1.8 billion gallons per day.

“Although the lake is still high for this time of year, current conditions are providing us with the opportunity to further reduce discharges and bring some degree of relief to the estuaries experiencing above normal seasonal algal blooms,” said Col. Jason Kirk, Army Corps of Engineers commander in Florida.

Also on Thursday, the South Florida Water Management District approved nearly $3 million in emergency spending to help pay for temporarily storing more water north of Lake Okeechobee and to pursue other drainage alternatives to dumping more water on the east and west coasts.

District board member Kevin Powers said the agency is “challenging the [drainage] system on a daily basis” to find alternatives to discharging lake water into delicate estuaries.

While coastal communities and environmental groups Thursday praised the new efforts, they also called for moving more water into the sugar cane-dominated farming region south of Lake Okeechobee as an alternative to dumping water to the east and west.

And, as a long-term fix, they again pushed for the state to buy more farmland south of Lake Okeechobee that could be used to store water that otherwise gets drained out to sea.

“These short-term fixes are sort of like putting a Band-Aid on a heart attack,” Lisa Interlandi of the Everglades Law Center, said about the district’s emergency efforts. “Don’t delay. … Don’t hold us off.”

Lake Okeechobee water that long ago naturally flowed south to the Everglades now gets drained east and west to avoid overwhelming the lake’s erosion-pone dike and flooding South Florida towns and farmland.

As a result, phosphorus and other pollutants that wash into the lake also get drained toward the coasts, fueling algae blooms that can threaten wildlife, make waters unsafe for swimming and scare away tourism.

The Army Corps of Engineers tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level to avoid breaching the 30-foot-tall dike, considered one of the country’s most at-risk of failing.

Lake Okeechobee on Thursday was 14.73 feet, about a foot higher than normal. The lake has been hovering near the top end of the targeted range, with hurricane season just beginning.

Even after the Lake Okeechobee draining cutbacks take effect Friday, the Army Corps still plans to discharge about 2.2 billion gallons of lake water combined each day to the east and west coasts. That’s enough water to fill about 3,000 Olympic-size swimming pools each day.

The environmental consequences of prolonged lake draining worsened this month along the east coast, leaving waterways near Stuart blanketed with algae, killing fish and at times closing beached due to health warnings.

In addition to holding more water north of the lake, the district plans to divert water to state and private land, instead of the lake, for flood control. Land owned by Florida Power and Light in Martin county as well as citrus groves are being targeted to hold water.

Also, moving more lake water south remains a priority, according to state officials.

The district has already started moving additional lake water south through canals that reach from the lake to West Palm Beach.

And state officials say that ongoing pumping into Everglades National Park from western Broward and Miami-Dade counties could also make room for moving more lake water into South Florida.

“There’s not one, simple silver bullet solution,” said Daniel O’Keefe, chairman of the district board.

Long-term help for coastal communities as well as ongoing Everglades restoration efforts won’t work without building another reservoir south of the lake, according to Charles Grande, of the Stuart-based Rivers Coalition advocacy group.

“We have to store, clean and convey lake water south,” Grande said. “Send the water south.”

State leaders last year balked at a deal to buy 46,800 acres of sugar industry farmland south of Lake Okeechobee, which could have been used to move more water from the lake for replenishing the Everglades.

Instead, Gov. Rick Scott and the water management district have emphasized exploring water storage options north of Lake Okeechobee and finishing slow-moving Everglades restoration plans that call for building other reservoirs and water treatment areas.

The South Florida Water Management District board on Thursday called for the Army Corps of Engineers and federal government to speed up decades-long Lake Okeechobee dike repairs, in the hopes of eventually holding more water in the lake instead of draining it to the coasts.

Scott, who appoints the district’s nine-member board, has blamed Lake Okeechobee drainage problems on inadequate funding from the federal government to finish repairing the lake’s 70-year-old dike.

The district board on Thursday also called for the Florida Legislature to approve the governor’s proposal for a 50/50 matching grant program aimed at encouraging residents in coastal communities who still use septic tanks to pay for switching to sewer systems. That could help reduce water pollution from septic tanks that also fuels algae blooms.

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