Environment

Political muscle halts release of Lake O’s foul water. The reprieve won’t last long.

The locks didn't open after all on Monday to dump more algae-choked Lake Okeechobee water into the St. Lucie estuary.

It was a reprieve — granted after appeals to the federal agency in charge of the lake by two of the state's most powerful Republican politicians — but also only a temporary one. Residents and business owners in the coastal communities surrounding the normally bountiful waters will take what they can get, but they're still bracing for yet another summer ruined by foul slime. They know more slugs of polluted lake water will be coming, sooner or later.

"Either way is bad," said Mary Radabaugh, manager of Central Marine in Stuart, where 8-inch-thick mats of toxic algae trapped boats in 2016. "I don't know which is the worse evil."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been planning to resume its summer releases from Lake Okeechobee following a nine-day break intended to give tides a chance to flush the estuary and possibly limit the massive blooms that began appearing in the lake in June. The blooms, confirmed in places to be toxic cyanobacteria, have spread across most of the 730-square-mile lake and already blanketed parts of the Caloosahatchee River on the southwest coast. The Corps releases water throughout the summer rainy season to ease pressure on the lake's failing dike.

In the past, the Corps has stuck to its scheduled releases. That changed with this summer's crisis, and its bad optics of puke green water, erupting during a heated and critical election year. Republicans are trying to unseat the state's senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, and maintain control of Congress.

Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging Nelson, ordered state water managers to take emergency actions to reduce releases last month. On Monday, following a boat tour of the Caloosahatchee, he issued a state of emergency for seven counties around the lake — an action coming months earlier than during the 2016 bloom. Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow Republican, also intervened on Sunday, asking the White House to order the Corps to stop flushing water to the coasts.

AlgaLago
On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency for seven counties around Lake Okeechobee, including Martin County where algae blooms can be found along the St. Lucie River including Shepard Park, shown here. Charles Trainor Jr. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Late Sunday night, the Corps complied, making the unusually quick decision to briefly pause the releases.

Acknowledging the decision was "very unusual," Corps spokesman John Campbell said the agency wanted to give elected officials, businesses and residents who don't closely follow the lake's management a chance to understand its decisions.

"As members of Congress start asking our headquarters what’s going on, we want to make sure we’re aligned in giving them the information they need," he said. "It allows those people getting that information, who may not look at it daily, to share ideas. Are you doing this? Are you doing that?"

It's not yet clear when the releases will resume, but Campbell said they could be as early as Wednesday.

"When we made the decision last night, when I was talking to Col. [Jason] Kirk, he made it quite clear that he didn’t expect this to be a longtime break," he said. "At the end of the day, the lake continues to rise and the water’s got to go somewhere." Kirk is commander of the Corps' Jacksonville district, which oversees operations of the lake's locks and massive levee.

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Algae floated near Central Marine in Stuart earlier this month. In 2016, toxic blooms shut down the marina after 8-inch-thick mats stranded boats. Mary Radabaugh

Managing the lake has long been at the center of some of the state's biggest water crises. During the hot summers, the lake — polluted by decades of farm and urban run-off that have laced bottom sediment with fertilizer nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen — regularly explodes with algae blooms. In 2000, Florida lawmakers ordered the lake cleaned by 2015. But two years ago, the legislature, pressured by the powerful sugar industry, extended the clean-up another 20 years.

After a 2016 bloom, lawmakers backed plans for a massive new Everglades reservoir that could give water managers more flexibility to deal with rising levels in the lake. It is now being reviewed by the Trump administration for approval. On Monday, the Everglades Foundation said the current crisis should serve as a warning to the administration.

"If the White House fails to send this report to Congress, we’re looking at a minimum of two years, maybe three years for the Corps to go back to its planning process, which will be more summers of toxic algae," said CEO Eric Eikenberg. "We cannot wait any longer."

s80 lock.jpg
Algae washes along the banks of the St. Lucie River Monday, just west of the S80 lock that empties into the estuary. Jenny Staletovich jstaletovich@miamiherald.com

The lake is ringed by an aging earthen dike that in 2008 was found to be in imminent danger of failing. Last week, the Corps announced that it was setting aside $514 million it received for hurricane recovery to complete the work by 2022. But until that's done, lake levels will still need to be kept between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet to protect the leaky dike.

How long the bloom will last remains uncertain. Cyanobacteria thrives in water above 68 degrees and as long as nutrients are available can continue to grow, said Tim Davis, a Bowling Green State University molecular microbiologist who specializes in harmful algae blooms.

"These blooms are based on the amount of nutrients," he said. "As long as it's warm, there are nutrients and they're not actively flushing, there's a strong possibility the bloom will persist."

For residents along the river systems on both coasts, another summer of foul water and fish kills seem inevitable. Radabaugh said customers had already made plans in case the marina gets slimed again. One leased space at a second marina. The state has also provided floating booms to block algae from drifting into the marina, she said. But that only stops what you can see on the surface, she said.

"I get it, what they're saying. But it doesn't have any kind of curtain below it," she said. "You still got it."

Boo Lowery, who lives in a riverfront house in Stuart, stopped by the St. Lucie lock that keeps lake water from the estuary after he heard protesters might gather. A lifelong resident, Lowery, 76, pulled out a stack of newspaper clippings he's been keeping for 20 years that track the lake's problems and cycle of damaging algae blooms.

"All you have to do is change the names and you'd think you read it today," he said.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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