With water levels falling in Lake Okeechobee and concerns about its aging dike easing, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday cut back on dumping that has devastated coastal estuaries.
If the generally dry weather continues, the damaging flows could be cut back further as early as this weekend.
The Corps, concerned about the rain-swollen lake putting too much pressure on the 80-year-old earthen dike, has dumped some 300 billion gallons of water from the lake since May 8. The flow of water laden with agricultural nutrients down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers has combined with local runoff to fuel algae blooms, fish kills and anger in communities on both coasts.
The Corps said the emergency releases through the massive lake’s two main relief outlets were critical to protecting the dike and public safety. Engineers calculate the effort kept the lake two feet lower than it might have been otherwise and kept the dike out of a high-risk, high-water danger zone. Lake levels stood at 15.74 feet Wednesday, down from a peak of just over 16 feet.
“The steady decline has opened up some room to reduce the discharges,” said Lt. Col Thomas Greco, the Corps’ deputy district commander for South Florida.
During a tour of the main flood gates on the St. Lucie on Tuesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott blamed “inaction” by the federal government on dike repairs and other water quality projects for the latest round of damaging dumping from Lake Okeechobee. The Corps has defended its efforts, saying it has spent more than $220 million to shore up the most vulnerable 21-mile stretch of the 143-mile-long dike and is now repairing culverts that are another weak point.
High water worries extend beyond the lake.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on Wednesday wrote the Corps warning that deer and other wildlife could die off in flooded sections of the Everglades without quick relief. Nelson has scheduled a Thursday tour of the hardest hit area, Water Conservation Area 3, an expanse of state-owned marsh north of Everglades National Park and west of Miami-Dade and Broward suburbs.
In the letter, Nelson urged the Corps to open flood gates that had helped drop water levels after similar flooding in 2008.
“I am quite confident if this was done again — if the gates were to be opened immediately — we would again prevent a horrific catastrophe,” wrote Nelson, who intends to tour the area with Broward County developer Ron Bergeron, an avid Glades outdoorsman and member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Greco said water levels in the area have dropped a third of a foot in recent weeks, but the Corps is still analyzing options for additional drainage, with one concern the potential for increasing the flooding threat in the Las Palmas community at the outskirts of western Miami-Dade.