In wake of algae crisis, Army Corps cuts Lake O discharges

The consequences of man’s reroute of Florida’s natural plumbing system culminated — again — Thursday at the steps of the South Florida Water Management District following an outbreak of blue-green algae in Treasure Coast waterways.

Dozens of environmental activists and Glades-area residents packed the district’s West Palm Beach board room to plead their cases on where to put the abundance of water bloating Lake Okeechobee.

The discussion came as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would reduce the damaging freshwater releases from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

The 44 percent reduction in water flowing to the St. Lucie still means a release of an average of 420 million gallons per day. The Caloosahatchee, which goes west into the Gulf, will be reduced to 1.8 billion gallons per day from 1.9 billion.

Emergency measures, such as pausing discharges to allow salinity levels in the estuary to increase with natural tidal fluxes, have reduced the blue-green algae that inundated the St. Lucie Estuary last month, district staff members said.

It’s hoped that the reduction in Lake Okeechobee flows will further disrupt algae growth.

“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, the corps’ Jacksonville district commander.

Kirk said drier conditions and continued water releases have brought the lake down to 14.73 feet from last week’s 14.93 feet.

The corps would prefer lower levels during rainy season. When too much water is in Lake Okeechobee, it can weaken the aging portions of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which protects Glades’ communities from flooding.

About 100 people attended the water management district’s meeting, including about a dozen Glades-area residents wearing bright yellow shirts that said #OurLivesMatterToo.

They fear building a reservoir to store water south of the lake could have damaging effects on their struggling lakeside communities, which rely on agricultural jobs.

“We ask our neighbors to the north, east and west to understand that there is more to this debate than one company and the people living on the coasts,” Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor said. “It’s easy to parrot a phrase like ‘buy the land,’ but what that really means is destroy jobs.”

Still, many of the 30 speakers asked the board to buy land south of the lake to clean the water and send it south instead of through the estuaries.

“I went in my backyard to take my dog out and I couldn’t breathe,” said Jensen Beach resident Cindy Lenz, referring to the smell the algae gives off. “It smells like death, like rotten eggs that have been left in the sun for three years.”

The algae bloom was first recognized in Lake Okeechobee in May, but the issue gained national attention when, before the July 4 holiday, a widespread bloom grew throughout the St. Lucie Estuary and closed the popular Bathtub Beach to swimming. It reopened but on Thursday swimmers were once again warned to stay out of the water.

“We are seeing a positive response in restoring salinity to the estuary,” said Terrie Bates, the district’s water resources division director. “We have returned back to what you would expect to see in lower flow conditions.”

Blue-green algae can’t survive in the higher salinity waters normal in the estuaries.

Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard pointed to a number of local projects designed to help reduce the amount of polluted runoff entering the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie Estuary.

Martin County has spent more than $64 million to build 32 stormwater treatment areas, Heard said. The county also has helped convert more than 1,700 septic tanks.

But Heard said more must be done. “Additional storage south of Lake Okeechobee must be evaluated,” she told water managers.

The board approved spending $2.6 million on emergency actions, such as storing water on private land and holding more water north of the lake. That vote was unanimous with Chairman Daniel O’Keefe and Mitch Hutchcraft abstaining.

The board also unanimously approved supporting Gov. Rick Scott’s initiative to help pay for the reduction of septic tanks, which add to the harmful nutrients ending up in the estuaries, and asking the federal government to expedite repairs to the dike so it can hold more water. No money has been set aside yet to convert septic tanks.

In other action, the board approved a plan to double the amount of freshwater that flows to the parched Florida Bay. The bay has suffered massive sea grass die offs because of increasing salinity levels and drought.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, on Thursday held a “Lagoon-Gulf Action Day” with a presentation and discussion from federal representatives who deal with harmful algae blooms nationwide. Murphy is running for U.S. Senate.

This week, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, asked Scott to call a special legislative session to deal with the algae issue. The daughter of former governor and senator Bob Graham also echoed the familiar refrain to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee.

Staff writer Jennifer Sorentrue contributed to this story.

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