Billions of gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee mixed with stormwater runoff from yards and streets have left the Indian River Lagoon so contaminated that organizers of the Treasure Coast Challenge triathlon this weekend have moved the race to cleaner waters.
The 1,500-meter swim portion of the race was planned to begin at East Island Park under the Stuart Causeway but health advisories issued in local waterways prompted race organizers to move the race 3 miles north to Jensen Beach. Athletes will now swim in the ocean rather than the lagoon.
“It has the potential to make people really sick,” said Deborah Drum, Martin County’s Director of Ecosystem Restoration Management. “I think it’s erring on the side of caution to make sure we are proactive and keep people safe.”
Water quality has gotten progressively worse since June, when above-average rainfall dumped stormwater polluted with pesticides, weed-killer and oily road runoff into local canals and waterways. The heavy rains also caused Lake Okeechobee to rise so high that the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the aging 143-mile dike around the lake, ordered water to be released to the St. Lucie Estuary to lower the lake’s level.
On July 25, the Corps ordered locks on both the St. Lucie Estuary, which flows into the Indian River Lagoon in Stuart, and the Caloosahatchee River on the west side of the lake to be completely opened to allow as much water as possible to leave the lake. Despite the Corps’ efforts, the lake continues to rise and as of midnight Monday stood at 15.78 feet. A year ago, the lake level was at 12.13 feet.
The lake’s fresh water dilutes the brackish, salty water in the estuary and lagoon — killing plants and animals that need saltier water. The fresh water is especially toxic to oysters, which can filter nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates out of the water at a rate of 40 gallons per day. The water is so contaminated that algae blooms are breaking out, said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society.
“It’s getting worse,” said Perry, looking at photographs of the bright green algae spreading through the estuary and lagoon.
The last widespread algae outbreak was in 2005 and Perry said he expects the same impact. The algae will turn blue-green as it dies and then decompose into a substance that looks like radiator fluid, Perry said. Oxygen levels drop, causing fish kills.
“This is not good,” he said.