Plan to spare Martin County could steer algae to Palm Beach County

A move to spare Martin County and Florida’s Gulf Coast, could send more algae blooms into Palm Beach County waterways.

In response to mounting outcry over massive water releases from Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week reduced the amount of polluted lake water it sends to the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River on the west coast.

At the same time, the South Florida Water Management District increased the amount of lake water being pumped into the L-8 Canal in the western part of Palm Beach County — a move some environmental leaders say could send more algae into the Intracoastal Waterway.

With more algae-laden water headed toward canals running through Palm Beach County, residents and environmental activists worry about a damaging proliferation of blooms. But water managers say they believe the additional movement of water from Lake Okeechobee through the two canals won’t inundate the county with the toxic blooms.

On June 30, the district said it was increasing water releases into the L-8 Canal to 258 million gallons per day — a 60 percent hike from the previous level. The waterway connects to the C-51 Canal, which flows from the west to the east along Southern Boulevard through the central part of the county.

The C-51 Canal is used to move water from inland Palm Beach County into the Intracoastal.

“There is a lot of algae in (Lake Okeechobee) right now,” said Dan Bates, deputy director of the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management. “Some of that algae is going to be making its way down the L-8 and the C-51. “We can expect more algae, it is just a question of what quantity actually reaches us.”

Whether the algae blooms make their way into the Intracoastal will depend on a series of factors, including tides, the weather and salinity levels in the waterway, Bates said. Saltwater kills the algae.

“Is it going to grow or is it going to die off,” Bates said. “A lot of that depends on tides and how much salt is in the system.”

About 30 percent of the water flowing through the C-51 Canal comes from Lake Okeechobee and the L-8 Canal. The rest of the discharge is runoff from multiple regions, including western communities such as Wellington and Royal Palm Beach.

South Florida Water Management District spokesman Randy Smith said the district is not expecting the 30 percent of Lake Okeechobee water to have a negative impact.

“Clearly, with the existing water and temperature conditions, any source of fresh water is susceptible to the algae,” Smith said.

Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center, said releases into the L-8 canal could spell big problems for Palm Beach County waterways. A planned reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, is critical to improving water quality in the region, she said.

“That algae is going to flow downstream,” Interlandi said. “If there is enough of it, we could have a major crisis here in Palm Beach County. The time for action is now.”

Lila Young, who has lived along the Intracoastal in West Palm Beach for 30 years, was shocked last month when broccoli-sized chunks of algae covered Summa Beach and her sea wall.

On Wednesday, she said the presence of algae had eased, with smaller and fewer blobs, but she fears what will happen with the increased discharges.

“Our city is based on the water. People love to go water skiing, take their boat out and there are fisherman all along Flagler Drive,” Young said. “It just seems like we can go to the moon, but we can’t figure out a solution to alleviate the algae problem?”

Also on Wednesday, an algae bloom was spotted near the point where the L-8 connects to the C-51 Canal. Bates examined a examined a photo of the algae for The Palm Beach Post and said the bloom was not cause for alarm.

“That is not necessarily that unusual,” Bates said. “We have seen that already this season.”

Bates said his office has also received phone calls from residents who have spotted algae in backyard canals, adding that it is not uncommon for algae to bloom during the summer months.

“It is not really that unusual this time of year to see some of it,” Bates said. “I think people are a lot more aware now than they were before.”

Also called cyanobacteria, the algae blooms are caused by tiny organisms naturally found in water. It sometimes produces toxins that can cause health problems in humans and pets.

The blooms are fueled by warm weather and by water enriched with nutrients, such as those found in fertilizers, septic tanks and stagnant water. There is no effective treatment to stop the algae or remove it from the water.

The algae were first discovered last month in Lake Okeechobee. Since then, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has been monitoring blooms across the Treasure Coast and South Florida.

Conditions in Martin County waterways have improved since widespread algae blooms blanketed shorelines there last week as coastal businesses readied for the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

The change came after the Army Corps on Friday cut lake releases into the St. Lucie Estuary to 756 million gallons per day — a 35 percent drop from the previous level, when the daily discharges totaled roughly 1.1 billion gallons.

“It’s not like we’ve been healed, but the crisis in many areas is not like it was last week when it was everywhere,” Sewall’s Point commissioner Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch said. “When the volume of water coming into the estuaries is less, there’s less nitrogen and phosphorous feeding the blooms.”

Thurlow-Lippisch has participated in the weekly Lake Okeechobee health discussions between the state’s water managers and researchers for four years. The calls, made on Wednesdays, preview the Thursday announcements about whether the corps will change discharge amounts into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

After Wednesday’s call, she said she believes the amount of water leaving the lake will remain the same at least for another week.

“It is the hope of the people that they shut this off, but I think it’s important that we are thankful to the Army Corps for what they did when they could have done nothing,” Thurlow-Lippisch said. “We are not out of the woods, but I’m thankful things look better this week.”

Staff photographer Allen Eyestone contributed to this story.

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