Dirty water from Lake Okeechobee is once again threatening South Florida’s fragile ecosystem.
With the arrival of the wet season and growing pressure on the lake’s aging dike, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Thursday that it would continue releasing water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers despite an algae bloom in and around the lake.
Two years ago, polluted lake water helped trigger a massive bloom, the latest in a string plaguing the St. Lucie River, killing seagrass and fish and leaving the water too toxic for swimming.
Also on Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the Corps was sending too much water south into habitat for the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow, a species still wrestling with extinction. A close cousin, the Dusky seaside sparrow, was declared extinct in the 1990s.
“For too long the Army Corps has been dumping water in the wrong place at the wrong time, hurting both the sparrow and Everglades National Park,” center director Noah Greenwald said in a statement.
The Corps began releasing lake water, mostly west, earlier this year. But in recent weeks, lake levels started climbing dangerously high, Jim Jeffords, the Corps chief responsible for water management, said in a news briefing on Thursday.
“It is well above the last four years,” he said.
The news comes as environmentalists around the state wage a bitter battle with lawmakers over the purchase of additional land that would be used to store and clean water and reduce such releases.
A 2010 deal, set to expire in October, would allow the state to buy about 46,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar. About 26,000 acres are located just south of the lake that could be used for storage, a key part of Everglades restoration.
Environmentalists say that money from Amendment 1 should be used. The measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November, dedicates about $10 billion in funds over 20 years to buy, protect and restore land and water resources. But lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott, heavily lobbied by the sugar industry that no longer backs the deal, have so far balked.
On Thursday, Jeffords said that the Corps, which began releasing water from the lake in January, first learned of new algae blooming east of the lake in Port Mayaca last Friday and immediately cut off lake water. Tests results Monday indicated low levels of algae, Jeffords said. By increasing flow, the Corps hopes to break up the algae that can fester in stagnant water and help flush it with freshwater, he said. The state plans on sampling around the area to keep an eye out for more blooms, he said.
The Corps also is evaluating the structural soundness of the 1930s-era dike, said spokesman John Campbell. A draft study should be complete this summer. While plagued by leaks in the past, the 143-mile dike currently has no leaks, Jeffords said.
Balancing flood protection with restoration efforts has been an ongoing battle that conservationists say the Corps is losing. Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who once advised the federal agencies and is a plaintiff in Thursday’s lawsuit, argues the Corps has failed to get the direction of the water correct and needs to do more to move it to the southeast, along its historic path.
“The Army Corps needs to get the water right not just to save the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, but the dozens of wildlife species that depend on a healthy Everglades,” he said.
However, the Corps has been hampered by funding — a $1.9 billion suite of projects for the central Everglades narrowly missed making it into an authorization bill in Congress last year. So while it waits for money, the Corps relies on tweaking flow levels to balance water needs without harming wildlife.
“Our operational plan helps to manage the system as restoration work progresses,” spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said in an email.