State and federal officials are taking extreme measures to manage South Florida’s swollen water control system and save the northern estuaries from a flood of harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges.
On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced a reduction in lake flows to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that officials hope will give the brackish ecosystems a break from the freshwater onslaught that began June 1.
That announcement followed an emergency order issued Wednesday by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that slashed permitting requirements allowing for the immediate installation of temporary pumps to move more lake water south and out to the ocean.
The changes come as an algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee spread significantly in the past week with water district officials warning a spat of sunny skies and high heat could fast-track more growth during the course of just a few days.
Satellite pictures taken between June 9 and Wednesday show a burgeoning swath of the southwest portion of the lake covered by a scummy film indicative of blue-green algae. Accompanying the photos were sobering computer-generated satellite predictions of widespread bloom development.
“It’s not typical for us to have to take these actions this early in the season,” South Florida Water Management Executive Director Ernie Marks said about the emergency measures. “It’s unfortunate that’s how it played out, but Mother Nature doesn’t always play fair.”
Record rainfall in May left tree islands in at least one water conservation area under water, damaging a key habitat for animals. But a week of lower rainfall freed up some room for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee and temporarily halted the steady rise of the lake itself.
Marks joined Gov. Rick Scott, Florida DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein, and Col. Jason Kirk, the Jacksonville district commander for the Corps, in a hastily assembled press conference Thursday at the water district headquarters in West Palm Beach.
The district and DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller emphasized the emergency order does not remove water quality standards that mandate lower nutrient levels in water going into the Everglades.
“If any adverse water quality, water quantity, or other negative environmental impacts occur as a result of the order, the department reserves the right to immediately revoke or modify authorization,” the order notes.
The Corps began releasing lake water to the estuaries June 1 — a measure taken when Lake Okeechobee levels get too high and the Corps fears they could damage the Herbert Hoover Dike, which protects Glades-area communities from flooding.
But the releases of freshwater into the brackish estuaries are harmful to the oyster beds and sea grasses that live in the higher-salinity water. Diluting the salinity levels also can encourage algae growth.
The St. Lucie Estuary was nearly flushed free of salinity in May by normal basin runoff. Treasure Coast residents began reporting algae just days after the lake releases began.
Karl Haven, director of Florida Sea Grant at the University of Florida and a professor in the school’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said it’s common for algae blooms to spread quickly.
“One week you can’t see anything and the next week it’s there,” he said. “The underlying problem with the lake is the very high nutrient levels that have made it a perfect recipe for blooms.”
The most recent significant bloom on the lake was in 2016. Releases that year likely contributed to a widespread algae outbreak in the St. Lucie River, either by adding algae to the water column or further diluting salinity levels.
“It’s hard to get a handle on what is the contributing factor,” Haven said. “Sixty percent of the water going into the St. Lucie isn’t from the lake, but from land around it. Disentangling the cause is extremely difficult.”
The reduction in discharges to the estuaries begins today with no discharges scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. The lake water will be sent out in pulses, rather than a continuous stream, to allow salinity levels to be recharged by the tide.
But he cautioned that the reduction may be temporary.
“Even if they reduce the water coming out, I’m pretty sure we will still see the algae issue,” said Mary Radabaugh, manager of Central Marine in Stuart. “We’re not really solving anything with the pulses. We’re just pulsing the algae through.”