The wettest January on record has pushed water levels up in Lake Okeechobee, forcing state and federal water managers to dump massive amounts of dirty water into two major rivers and raising concern about yet another round of widespread environmental damage.
Over the weekend, the South Florida Water Management District even took the rare step of “back-pumping” polluted water from flooded farm fields to the south, adding about 15 billion gallons or an inch of water to a lake already running about a foot too high for this time of year.
Though the controversial pumping from the vast farm area, dominated by sugar fields, ended on Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has cranked open the flood gates to protect the lake’s aging dike. That water, the largest volume allowed by regulations, has been rushing down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers since Friday, mingling with local run-off and flooding inlets with fresh water.
Similar massive dumps over the last two decades have been devastating to oysters, seagrass and other marine life — and infuriating to coastal communities on both sides of the state. Already, the water off the coast of Sanibel’s famed shell-strewn beaches is a drab brown.
“Water is brown as far as you can see, a reddish brown like a red tide which we just had,” said Rick Bartleson, a research scientist at the Captiva-Sanibel Conservation Foundation. Worse, the water is quickly turning normally saltwater habitats fresh.
Oysters are not very tolerant. They close up their shells and as long as they can, hold their breath.
Rick Bartleson, a research scientist at the Captiva-Sanibel Conservation Foundation
“Oysters are not very tolerant,” he said. “They close up their shells and as long as they can, hold their breath.”
Since November, heavy rainfall fueled by an El Niño global weather pattern has made the start of what is typically South Florida’s dry season the wettest in more than 80 years. Lake levels rose to their highest since December 2005.
Pumping in recent days has slowed the rise of the lake, but it has not stopped it, said John Campbell, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages levels in the lake in consultation with state water managers. Also complicating efforts is heavy run-off from the miles of neighborhoods and fields between the lake and river locks. Only about half the water flowing into the St. Lucie and a third to half in the Caloosahatchee are from the lake, he said.
With so much water, Campbell said that releases into the rivers will likely continue for some time.
“The lake is supposed to be receding so we have capacity for an upcoming wet season or tropical event,” he said.
While “back-pumping” water from farm fields — low in oxygen and high in nitrogen and phosphorus harmful to marine life — lasted just four days, it was enough to trigger the massive releases from the lake that now are threatening the estuaries. Overall, the sugar farm runoff added about 15 billion gallons of water to the lake, equal to about an inch of extra water, Campbell said.
Overall, the lake is about a foot above where water managers want it at this time of year.
“To get one foot of water out of the lake, that’s at least a month of terrible releases to the east or two months of not so bad, and that’s if it doesn’t rain anymore,” said Paul Gray, Audubon Florida’s Lake Okeechobee science coordinator. “We have what is essentially a jalopy of a management system and we’re asking it to do more than it can do.”
Since 2007, following Hurricane Katrina, the Corps has invested more than $500 million to shore up the 50-year-old dike. Two years ago, Corps engineers completed a 22-mile seepage wall and are now working to replace 26 massive culverts, and in 2018 they will likely begin deliberations on changing the lake’s operation.
As early as September, water management district staff discussed the threat of increased rainfall from El Niño, which by some measures is more intense than a 1997-1998 formation that also led to heavy rain and widespread algae blooms and fish kills in the St. Lucie River.
We’ve been saying over several months this is coming, the lake is going to get a lot of rain and you have to let it go south.
Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society
“We’ve been saying over several months this is coming, the lake is going to get a lot of rain and you have to let it go south,” said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society.“But they put it off and here we are caught with this high lake level. It’s déjà vu all over again from 1998.”
About 700 acres of seagrass sit inside the Indian River Lagoon, drawing manatees and essentially acting as a nursery to young marine life. With sustained flows of freshwater, Perry said the grass would likely start to die in two weeks. In 2013, when the lake climbed to more than 16 feet after Tropical Storm Isaac, and an early start to the wet season caused the lake to rise four feet in six weeks, massive releases caused widespread damage. Nearly all of the oysters in the estuaries died, as well as 75 percent of its seagrass.
“The longer the duration of the discharges, the longer it’s going to be devastating,” Perry said.
Last year the Corps approved a suite of projects designed to let more water flow south, but they failed to get money from Congress. On Monday, Sen. Bill Nelson said he hoped to fix that by introducing a bill to speed up funding to avoid “impossible decisions that face the Corps of Engineers, like right now.”