JUST IN: Lake Okeechobee on ‘dangerous rise’ into peak hurricane season


Harmful Lake Okeechobee releases will increase into the northern estuaries Friday as lake levels continue a “dangerous rise” into the peak of hurricane season.

The Army Corps announced the news Thursday, noting the lake level was 14.57 feet above sea level — higher than it was when Hurricane Irma struck on Sept. 10 last year. Rains from the major hurricane pushed the lake to a 12-year high of more than 17 feet in a single month.

Concerns about the integrity of the aging Herbert Hoover Dike mean the lake is closely monitored during the rainy season, but a record-wet May forced intermittent discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River to begin June 1. The dike protects Glades-area communities from life-threatening flooding, but can suffer breaches if the water level is too high.

The freshwater releases contribute to blue-green algae blooms in the estuaries, which have spread in both waterways this summer and forced the closure of the popular Bathtub Beach to swimming on Wednesday after algae was spotted.

“With continued paramount focus on Herbert Hoover Dike safety throughout 2018, we need to make increased discharges to slow the still dangerous rise in lake levels,” said Col. Jason Kirk, the Corps’ Jacksonville District commander, in a press release.

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Susan Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Corps, said the average flow to the St. Lucie Estuary will increase by 330 cubic feet per second to 1,500 cubic feet per second. Water will continue to be released in pulses to allow some saltwater into the estuary during tidal shifts.

The increase on the Caloosahatchee side was less clear late Thursday. Although Jackson confirmed more Lake Okeechobee water will be released into the estuary — 2,000 cubic feet per second — a different measuring location made it more difficult to calculate the increase, she said.

The rapid rise in water levels in Lake Okeechobee is a perennial concern for the Corps, which tries to balance the potential need for water during the dry season with concerns over tropical systems dumping dike-damaging rains during hurricane season.

In 2008, Tropical Storm Fay slogged through Florida, leaving as much as 20 inches of rain in central regions of the state and pushing Lake Okeechobee levels up 4 feet in a single month.

Tropical Storm Isaac in 2012 caused the lake to rise nearly 4 feet in six weeks.

PHOTOS: Florida’s blue-green algae disaster 2018

Peak hurricane season runs between mid-August and mid-October — a time when up to 95 percent of hurricanes form in the tropical Atlantic. Although this season has been forecast to have less storm activity than normal, the Corps said there is no guarantee another Irma isn’t lurking.

“A similar storm could take the lake to even higher levels (than 17 feet),” Thursday’s press release said.

“We move water everywhere except the estuaries when we can and we continue to do that,” Kirk said last week at a community meeting in Stuart where Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, asked that the lake be kept at lower levels during the dry season to avoid wet season discharges.

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The blue-green algae, which is actually a cyanobacteria, can be toxic and dangerous levels of toxins have been measure on the Treasure Coast and along the Caloosahatchee this summer.

Robert Lord, president of Martin Health System, said last week there has been an increase in emergency room visits from people suffering symptoms linked to blue-green algae but that it hasn’t been as bad as in 2016 when a widespread outbreak slimed the St. Lucie.

“Two years ago we had far worse problems, but this year, 73 patients have been treated for symptoms that we think are related to blue-green algae,” Lord said. “Common sense suggests to me that the long-term impact will be very bad.”

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