The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will start releasing polluted water from Lake Okeechobee to Florida’s coasts on Friday in an effort to avoid stress on the aging levee holding it in, but the move has residents on both coasts angry about a possible repeat of 2016’s disastrous algal blooms.
The Corps is attempting to avoid exacerbating the problem by repeating a strategy from 2016: releasing the water in small batches over the next two weeks to “simulate rainfall events.” The idea is that the technique limits the usual impacts of the influx of nutrient-dense water — massive, stinky algae blooms that kill fish and wreck tourism — by allowing in saltwater to kill the algae.
Moving around the nutrient-dense lake water, fouled by runoff from septic tanks, ranches and sugar farms, is something like a game of hot potato.
Inside the lake, rising water levels have authorities nervous about a potential breech in the leak-prone Herbert Hoover Dike, which could flood 37,000 nearby residents. Diverting less water than past regulations call for is “a little bit of a risk,” said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander for the Corps, especially when the lake’s levels swelled with May’s record-breaking rainfall.
“That highest ever rainfall has been the set for, I’m going to use the term ‘battle,’ we’ve been in,” Kirk said.
But once the water gets released — in “pulses” or otherwise — it sweeps across the state in both directions, to the Caloosahatchee River on the west and to the St. Lucie River estuaries on the east. Sometimes, that polluted water causes major algae blooms. In 2016, guacamole-like blooms paralyzed tourism on both coasts and left residents angry and worried that it will happen again.
Kirk said he could not assure residents that 2018 won’t be a repeat of 2016. Although the Corps is diverting some of that water through canals and land managed by the South Florida Water Management District, he said there’s currently no alternative to flushing the lake water into the estuaries.
“We understand this challenge and what you’re seeing and we’ll take every chance to put water elsewhere,” he said.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio asked the White House to consider releasing water from the lake in pulses last week, and his office characterized the decision by the Corps as the best possible scenario to balance flood control needs with algae concerns. Rubio discussed the issue with Kirk last week, and the Corps informed the senator’s office of the decision on Wednesday.
“Along with “pulsing” submaximal discharge flows, loosening the Corps’ rigid implementation of the current (release schedule) is one possible measure that could improve downstream conditions and quickly signal to residents that their federal government is responsive to their needs and concerns,” Rubio wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump last week.
There are solutions on the table for the problems, but they won’t be effective for a few more years.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently approved a state and federal government-funded $1.4 billion project to build a reservoir for the filthy water south of Lake Okeechobee, providing a new storage spot other than the estuaries. The Corps has also upped its fund to fix the leaky dike by 2022 by $514 million.
“You will see measurable improvement from these state and federal investments in the next six or seven years,” Kirk said. “It’s not near-term satisfaction, but the path we’re on for long-term restoration is the right path.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Alex Daugherty contributed to this story.