Northern estuaries stained with blue-green algae will see a more than 30 percent reduction in harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges beginning Friday as pressure mounts for a speedier solution to stop the poisonous blooms.
The Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday it will cut flows into the St. Lucie Estuary by 35 percent, and reduce discharges by 32 percent into the Caloosahatchee River.
The freshwater flushes weaken salinity levels in the estuaries and introduce blue-green algae that can grow into widespread toxic blooms.
Thursday’s announcement came after Florida Sportsman Magazine temporarily closed its Stuart office this week when employees were sickened by algae fumes, and as a top U.S. Department of Interior official took notice of South Florida’s water dilemma.
Susan Combs, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks for the U.S. Department of Interior, asked Wednesday that a group of scientists and engineers be assembled by mid-August to review if Lake Okeechobee levels could be managed differently during the dry season to reduce the need for wet-season releases.
The request was made during a South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force meeting in Washington, D.C. — the first since President Donald Trump took office.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, grilled South Florida Water Management Executive Director Ernie Marks at the meeting about whether Lake Okeechobee water was being hoarded unnecessarily during the dry season, leaving coastal communities to suffer discharges during summer months.
“This is a very important topic, and I will freely admit that I was not familiar with this before,” Combs said after the discussion. “I don’t think we can fix it today, but I do think the conversation should continue.”
Lake Okeechobee levels are managed by the Corps according to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, which considers the dry season needs of South Florida as well as the flooding concerns during the rainy season if the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake were to fail. The Corps prefers to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level.
Farms, the Miccosukee and Seminole Indian tribes, and nutrient-cleansing storm water treatment areas rely on Lake Okeechobee water during the dry season. The lake also serves as a backup water supply for West Palm Beach.
But if the lake gets too high, the water has to be discharged through the St. Lucie Estuary to the Atlantic Ocean and through the Caloosahatchee River into the Gulf of Mexico. A dike failure could flood communities south of the lake, putting the lives of an estimated 36,000 people at risk.
Blue-green algae blooms have plagued both waterways this summer with multiple tests by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection showing harmful levels of toxins.
Results from a sample of algae taken near the office of Florida Sportsman on Monday were not available Thursday, but office manager Diana Matthews said being near the water had employees complaining of headaches, coughing, runny noses, nauseousness and stomach problems.
“I was out of the office last week and I was thinking people were just imagining things, but by the end of the day my throat was so scratchy and I couldn’t stop coughing,” Matthews said. “I realized it wasn’t imaginary.”
Florida Sportsman Publisher Blair Wickstrom closed the office Tuesday. Employees are working remotely until it can reopen.
In Lee County, where the Caloosahatchee empties into the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island Mayor Kevin Ruane said the water conditions are the worst he’s seen.
“We are on the verge of potentially putting southwest Florida into a recession,” Ruane told the Restoration Task Force.
On Thursday, Lake Okeechobee was 14.31 feet above sea level. The 730-square-mile lake lost nearly a foot of water since the Corps began discharges June 1.
At this time last year, the lake stood at 12.72 feet above sea level.
Areas of the Kissimmee basin that flow into Lake Okeechobee, received between 3 and 5 inches of rain on Sunday. How much that will swell Lake O in the coming days is unknown.
“I know we have a problem right there in Florida right now and it’s a terrible thing,” said R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works during Wednesday’s meeting. “It is a terrible thing, but not something that is easily fixed.”