As algae concerns grow, Lake O southern reservoir plan gains support


A reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee would benefit the state’s flora and fauna from oyster beds in the lake-bombed northern estuaries to Florida Bay sea grasses, according to a draft environmental impact statement released last week.

The 140-page report from the Army Corps of Engineers does express concerns about whether water flowing south from the reservoir into the Everglades will be clean enough, but the analysis lists few drawbacks to the ambitious $1.4 billion project.

The draft assessment was made public just days after Treasure Coast residents began reporting puddles of blue-green algae hugging the shorelines of the St. Lucie River and collecting in marinas.

Harmful lake discharges that dilute the brackish waters of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries exacerbate algae growth. Those discharges would be reduced by the planned 10,500-acre above ground reservoir and a 6,500-acre storm water treatment area planned for western Palm Beach County.

On Tuesday, bright green algae oozed like the innards of a lava lamp in the waters around Stuart’s Riverland community and Shepard Park. Tom Nolin, a Riverland resident and caretaker, said he first saw the algae June 5. This week, state inspectors noted the algae had moved from a surface eyesore to inundate the water column in three test areas in Martin County.

“It’s not the best publicity, but people need to see this,” Nolin said.

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Public meetings on the draft environmental impact statement are scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. June 26-28. The June 26 meeting will be at the Lee County Hyacinth and Mosquito Control District in Lehigh Acres, followed by the June 27 meeting at the John Boy Auditorium in Clewiston and the June 28 meeting at the Blake Library in Stuart.  Comments can also be submitted to eaareservoir@usace.army.mil through July 24.

“In this case, this project’s effects are beneficial to the natural system,” said Matt Morrison, the South Florida Water Management District’s federal policy and coordination bureau chief. “There’s nothing in this environmental impact statement that is insurmountable or would cause any significant challenges.”

Water management officials accused the Corps of “undermining” the project last week when a separate report was released that found the project to be feasible, but that said it had several “technical, policy, and legal concerns.”

RELATED: Lake O algae spotted as spat erupts over reservoir

District Executive Director Ernie Marks said support from Florida lawmakers, Gov. Rick Scott, and stakeholders “across the board” will help move the project forward. The plan is with the Office of Management and Budget for review before being sent to Congress.

Depending on how the money is allocated for the project — the state and federal government are expected to split the cost — the reservoir could take between 10 and 20 years to build, Morrison.

Treasure Coast residents, and those on the west coast where the Caloosahatchee empties, are eager for a fix.

RELATED: One tropical system can push Lake Okeechobee over the edge

The Corps began discharging lake water to the St. Lucie on June 1, but by then, the river’s salinity levels had already been flushed fresh by local basin runoff, according to the South Florida Water Management District. Higher salinity levels inhibit algae growth. 

“By the time we got into mid-May, there was a very sudden dramatic decline in salinity levels so any chance we had for the recovery of oyster communities has been washed away with that freshwater inflow,” said Terrie Bates, director of water resources for the district. “Those oysters are likely not going to survive any of those conditions and that’s very disappointing.” 

No algae was visible in Lake Okeehobee on Tuesday from the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam, but Richard Stumpf, a NOAA oceanographer monitoring algae on the lake via satellite, said there are “small pockets of blooms.”

Algae samples taken at Port Mayaca, Riverland Marina and Canal Point tested positive last week for very low levels of toxins not considered harmful to humans by the World Health Organization. Results from three samples taken Monday are expected this week.

“I would not be overly concerned about the current toxin levels,” said Kathleen Rein, a professor in Florida International University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “However, I would be more concerned about what may happen in the near future. Depending on the rain and the releases from the lake, it may be possible to have a repeat of 2016.”

Thick mats of algae choked marinas and tributaries during the summer of 2016 after lake discharges had been ongoing since February because of supercharged rains influenced by El Niño.

Blue-green algae are actually cyanobacteria that produce a toxin to avoid getting eaten by zooplankton. According to the EPA, drinking, swallowing or swimming in water with a toxic algae bloom can cause stomach, liver, respiratory and neurological problems, as well as rashes. Cyanobacteria can also get so abundant that when they die their decomposition can remove oxygen from the water and kill fish.

Mary Radabaugh, manager of Central Marine in Stuart, remembered the headaches and nausea the 2016 event caused. She pulled out photo albums on Tuesday detailing algae outbreaks dating back to 2005.

Algae Radabaugh spotted in the marina Tuesday morning was double what was there Monday, she said.

“I would say we are pretty much on the same path (as 2016),” Radabaugh said. “We had three weeks of rain and in combination with the lake water, it’s the perfect storm.”

PHOTOS: Toxic algae spreads along beaches in 2016

Several environmental groups pushed for a larger footprint of the Lake Okeechobee reservoir to reduce the proposed 22.6-foot depth. They believe a shallower reservoir could clean the nutrient-high lake water more efficiently before sending it south into the Everglades and Florida Bay.

The environmental impact study notes that water quality going south has the potential to be “slightly degraded” if stormwater treatment areas are too small.

It’s a concern expressed both by the Miccosukee Tribe, which has lands close to the project, and William Mitsch, a consultant for Friends of the Everglades and director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Mitsch, who reviewed the draft impact statement Monday, said it glossed over the water quality issue.

“If they don’t deliver clean water to the Everglades, it will be a disaster,” Mitsch said. “I think they need 50,000 acres of storm water treatment areas, not 6,500.”

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