Lake Okeechobee dumping spells pollution problems for coastal rivers

With Lake Okeechobee two feet too high and still rising after a month of heavy rain and far-off Tropical Storm Dorian posing a potential but highly uncertain threat, federal engineers on Thursday cranked opened the flood gates on the big lake, spilling tens of billions of gallons of polluted water down rivers on both coasts.

The “maximized” releases are intended to protect public safety, making room for flood waters and easing pressure on the aging, vulnerable Herbert Hoover Dike. The lake remained more than a foot below the danger zone where risks of leaks, erosion or even potentially catastrophic breaches to the massive levee begin to sharply rise. But Dorian or some other future tropical deluge could quickly fill that gap as South Florida enters the peak of the hurricane season.

“It is imperative that we take additional measures to control the rise of the lake to ensure we have enough storage capacity,’’ said Col. Alan Dodd, commander of the U.S. Army Crops of Engineers’ Jacksonville District.

But stepped-up dumping flow spells an expanding environmental disaster for once-rich estuaries on both sides of the state: the Caloosahatchee River on the southwest coast and the St. Lucie River on the southeast. Sprawling black plumes already foul both rivers, a brew produced by local storm runoff but worsened by weeks of steadily increasing dumping of lake water laced with farm and yard nutrients like phosphorous, nitrogen, animal waste and silt.

In the St. Lucie, oysters are shriveling, sea grass beds are withering and waste-related bacteria levels have soared so high that Martin County health authorities have posted signs warning people not to swim in the river. It’s a mess that makes an unrelated algae bloom in Biscayne Bay appear relatively benign.

For frustrated residents, river advocated and environmentalists, it’s dirty water déjà vu.

Both rivers, which double as relief valves for Lake Okeechobee in the region’s flood-control system, have been repeatedly pounded by lake dump over the last few decades. The St. Lucie, about 50 miles north of West Palm Beach, has been hammered hardest — most recently and destructively after the hectic 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons repeatedly filled Lake Okeechobee.

Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a commissioner for Sewall’s Point, an upscale enclave near the mouth of the St. Lucie inlet, has regularly flown in her husband’s plane to photograph impacts that have spread though much of the Indian River Lagoon complex, from Fort Pierce to south of Stuart.

“This is just ridiculous for black water to be running through our estuaries in front of our homes where we play and fish,’’ said Thurlow-Lippisch. “I am angry at my government and I am part of the government. There is no excuse for this to keep happening.’’

The Corps, which co-manages the lake and regional flood-control system with the South Florida Water Management District, insists the agencies are doing everything they can with an outdated regional drainage system periodically overwhelmed by South Florida’s extreme weather. When it rains like it has so far in July, approaching double the typical amounts in some areas, the lake can rise much faster than the Corps can lower it.

“We really are constrained in terms of where water can go,’’ said Thomas Greco, the Corps’ deputy district commander. “We’re doing our best.’’

The Everglades also are brimming but even if the marshes weren’t full, unfiltered lake water is far too dirty — high in the damaging fertilizer ingredient phosphorous — to send south without violating state water quality standards and federal court settlements to stop the flow of damaging pollution into the Everglades.

A $1 billion network of massive artificial pollution-scrubbing marshes built by the state doesn’t yet have the capacity to handle a heavy volume of water. Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection agreed to a nearly $900 million expansion of the cleanup projects but it will be more than a decade before the work is completed.

Drew Bartlett, DEP’s director of environmental assessment and restoration, said his agency had been “aggressive” in setting tough water quality standards, announcing a plan for the St. Lucie basin in May that calls for some $300 million in local and state projects to clean or hold storm water and reduce polluted runoff from groves, farms and other local sources. The restrictions should start reducing nutrient loads into the St. Lucie over the next five years, he said.

The DEP is now working on a similar but far more complicated plan to clean up Lake Okeechobee, primary source of water for a politically influential sugar industry that environmentalists largely blame for polluting the Glades. While Bartlett said the agriculture industry shared a goal of improving water quality in the region, he said ironing out details can be difficult.

“I have been doing these water quality programs going on 10 to 12 years,’’ he said. “It’s a constant battle to have to bring stakeholders together to reach agreements.’’

Critics acknowledge water managers have few options when the lake rises dangerously high but they argue that’s largely because state and federal agencies charged with protecting the estuaries simply haven’t done enough. They say promised projects have been delayed and dogged by inadequate funding, bureaucratic red-tape, engineering problems and flagging political support at the state and federal level.

Scott, questioned by a West Palm Beach television reporter about the foul river during a visit to St. Lucie County last week, pointed the finger at federal agencies.

“A lot of decisions are made at the federal level and they’re not saying, ‘Gosh, governor, what do you think?’ everyday,’’ Scott said.

Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, scoffed at the response, urging the governor to press his water district appointees to endorse and expedite a $2.2 billion Central Everglades project that, in a decade or so, would provide at least some relief by expanding storage, cleaning more lake water and sending it south into the marshes that need it.

“He said, basically, it’s out of my control now,’’ said Perry, a member of the Rivers Coalition of 69 civic, business and environmental groups formed after a 1998 dump of river water slimed the St. Lucie. “Absolutely not. It’s totally in his control.”

Thurlow-Lippisch echoed that view, saying she was “embarrassed” by state leaders, including fellow Republicans, who protected agricultural interests at the expense of natural resources and the economic interests of coastal communities.

“They should be trying everything to take care of this situation,’’ she said. “Get together, have a meeting and figure it out. This is a crisis for the Treasure Coast.’’

For now, with the lake 15.62 feet above sea level, the Corps is confident in the integrity of the massive 143-mile-long levee.

But the Corps began weekly inspections this week and stepped up releases in hopes of keeping the level below 17 feet, when the risks of internal erosion called “piping’’ begin to increase. The massive dike, build of sand, gravel and rock in the 1930’s after deadly floods from two hurricanes, has leaked in some past storms. It’s been beefed up in one problem stretch over the last decade but the Corps still puts the odds of a failure of some sort when it reaches 18.5 feet at 55 percent.

Even without more rain, it would take a month to drop the lake a foot, said Greco.

Paul Gray, Audubon of Florida’s science coordinator for Lake Okeechobee, said he understood why the Corps was opening the flood gates. The lake rose six feet after four hurricanes in 2004, he said, and Tropical Storm Fay in 2008 shot lake levels up 2.5 feet in a week.

“That’s what the district and the Corps and everybody is afraid of right now,’’ he said. “We haven’t even gotten into August in the hurricane season.’’