Florida’s freshwater heart is choking on nutrient-laden inflows from the north, south and east this summer, but Treasure Coast waterways have so far been spared the damaging Lake Okeechobee discharges that seeded 2016’s widespread algae bloom.
In a move that hasn’t been made since 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers is letting Martin County’s St. Lucie Canal run into Lake Okeechobee to increase lake levels lowered by spring drought.
Water from the canal, also called the C-44, comes from the east. It’s a reverse of what happened last summer where water from the lake went through the canal into the St. Lucie estuary.
Trickling through row crops, golf courses and some residential areas, the canal water has contained as much as two times the amount of phosphorous this month than what is considered normal, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
The corps estimates 386 million gallons per day of canal water went into the lake during a 52-day period beginning June 5. At the same time, Kissimmee basin runoff water flowed in from the north, and 12 days of emergency pumping came from the south after a deluge of early June rain.
This month, a “significant” algae bloom was identified on the lake — nurtured by high temperatures and nutrient-heavy inflows.
On Friday, Audubon Florida scientist and Lake Okeechobee expert Paul Gray found the glowing green algae at the Pahokee Marina with people fishing in it.
“Why are there no warning signs,” he asked. “With all the back pumping and back flowing they did, this is one of the byproducts.”
“Impacts on wildlife are uncertain, but of concern,” Gray said.
Algae can sometimes die suddenly. Their decomposition uses up oxygen in the water and you can get a fish kill.”
Gray said there is no way to predict whether that will happen this summer, and while the C-44 water helps feed the bloom, it’s impossible to tease out how much it contributes.
“This is potentially a public health threat,” Gray said about the algae.
LAKE O’S PROBLEMS MAN-MADE
Lake Okeechobee’s problems are decades old and man-made, stemming from a reroute of Florida’s natural plumbing to make room for homes and farms.
Historically, Lake Okeechobee water flowed south through the Everglades and into Florida Bay. But in developing South Florida, roads blocked that natural flow and canals were carved to control water movement.
Now, the Everglades ecosystem either drowns or dies of thirst during extreme events.
With the St. Lucie Canal, the runoff water has only two ways to go — into the lake or out the St. Lucie River.
When the lake is low, the Corps lets gravity take the canal water into the lake through the Port Mayaca lock.
“It’s not entirely uncommon, it’s just been a while since we’ve been in a position to do it,” said John Campbell, a spokesman for the corps about the backwards water flow. “Generally, there has not been a lot of interest from people when the C-44 goes into the lake. Certainly there is a lot of interest when it goes the other way.”
During the summer of 2016, the corps discharged tens of billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries to lower lake levels bloated by record winter rainfall.
The corps likes to keep the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level. Much higher, and there is concern about leaks in the Herbert Hoover Dike, which protects Glades-area communities from flooding. Much lower, and the concern is there won’t be enough water to make it through South Florida’s dry season.
But the 2016 lake discharges lowered the salinity level in the estuaries and seeded them with an algae that became a thick, sludgy bloom clogging marinas, closing beaches and costing businesses tourism dollars.
“It’s a very tricky balance to retain just enough water to get us through the dry season, but not enough that if a tropical system comes we’ll have to dump water,” Campbell said.
In August 2008, Tropical Storm Fay slogged through Florida, dumping as much as 20 inches of rain in central regions of the state and pushing Lake Okeechobee levels up four feet in a single month.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said tests of Lake Okeechobee algae have so far been negative for toxins. Algae isn’t always toxic, but can admit toxins as a defense mechanism against being eaten, Gray said.
Still, he’s concerned there hasn’t been more of a response from the state about the current outbreak. Even the size of the algae bloom is unclear.
The Florida DEP referred questions about its size to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was looking into whether it had a satellite image Friday, but as of late afternoon it did not respond.
“How are we supposed to protect human health and safety when we don’t know how big it is and no one seems to be doing anything to find out,” Gray said.
The South Florida Water Management District, and at least one Glades-area representative, are concerned if water must be discharged into the estuaries this year, the Lake Okeechobee algae bloom will be wholly blamed on the emergency back pumping from the south.
Water from the south is higher in nitrogen than phosphorous, Gray said. The two combined provide a buffet for the algae.
“This summer, environmental activists have been silent as millions of gallons of untreated water have flowed into Lake Okeechobee from Martin County waterways,” said Hillary Hyslope, executive director of the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce. “Efforts should be focused on cleaning water before it goes into the lake.”
Focus has centered on legislation passed this year to store excess water south of Lake Okeechobee.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, is pushing the corps to work more quickly with the South Florida Water Management District to build the storage outlined in Florida State Senate Bill 10, but also said in a statement that he supports cleaning water north of the lake.
“Wherever the dirty water comes from, we’ve got to take care of the issue,” Mast said.