Can lowering Lake O stop toxic algae flows? The Trump administration wants to find out

Aerial view of Florida Everglades
Aerial view of Florida Everglades - Jupiterimages

Brian Mast crashed the party.

The first-term Republican congressman, who represents a Treasure Coast district decimated by toxic blue-green algae, wasn’t scheduled to speak at the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s first meeting since Donald Trump became president.

But as Mast emerged in the back of the auditorium, assistant Secretary of the Interior Susan Combs stopped a scheduled question-and-answer session with Army Corps officials to let the congressman question some of the officials in attendance.

His most pressing concern? Getting government officials to lower Lake Okeechobee water levels in the dry season so the lake has more capacity during the wetter summer months, decreasing the chances of algae-ridden water ending up in canals and rivers on Florida’s east and west coasts.

“This is the issue that’s at the crux of my community, the fact that water is being held on Lake Okeechobee, not just as it relates to risk management but as it relates to the benefit of a number of other entities to the detriment of an epicenter of population,” Mast said. “I think this issue needs to be dealt with in the short term as we wait for everything in this integrated delivery schedule to come to fruition. This is an emergency situation in an epicenter of human population.”

South Florida Water Management District Director Ernie Marks and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James were unable to estimate a minimum water level for Lake Okeechobee during the dry season.

“I don’t have an exact number for you,” Marks said. “I can tell you that there are several entities that rely on that water. We do focus on making sure that the tribes, the lower east coast get the water that they need to support the populations in those areas.”

“Which is to the detriment of communities that don’t need the water when it comes to the time of the wet season, which we’re in right now,” Mast replied.

The exchange between Mast and Marks highlights the tension between competing interests that have different immediate needs from Florida’s largest lake. Residents along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers are on the verge of an economic recession due to the algae flows, according to Sanibel mayor Kevin Ruane.

“I’ve been here for 15 years, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen this condition,” Ruane said. “We’re like Goldilocks: we need water during the dry season but we don’t water during the wet season. Right now, we’re have a situation where this is having a compound effect on the economy.”

Combs, the top Trump administration official in attendance, proposed an additional working group of scientists and engineers to come up with an answer to Mast’s questioning on the minimum allowable water in Lake Okeechobee during the dry season.

“I will freely admit that I was not aware of this before,” Combs said. “I don’t think we can fix it today but I do think this conversation should continue.”

Combs said the sub-working group will meet in two and a half weeks.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first public meeting of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force since Trump became president, even though the group of federal, state and local officials with varying responsibility for Everglades restoration is supposed to meet twice a year.

The meeting also included updates on the Herbert Hoover Dike and the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir, multi-billion-dollar projects that won’t be completed for years. On Wednesday morning, the Army Corps of Engineers released an updated schedule for Everglades restoration projects with extended timelines of completion.

That wasn’t acceptable for Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

“Extending the delivery timeline for [Central Everglades Planning Project] validation reports is simply unacceptable,” Rubio said in a letter to James. “CEPP, along with the dynamic storage and treatment capacity of the soon-to-be-authorized EAA storage reservoir project, is the key to implementing large-scale water management in South Florida.”

The long-term projects and short-term fixes for the Everglades, and algae-ridden water, are tinged with politics in an election year. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson argues that Gov. Rick Scott ignored federal help from the Obama administration over the past eight years. Mast, facing a competitive reelection campaign, argues that Obama ignored Scott’s request for a disaster declaration while he was in office.

Meanwhile, tourists and businesses continue to struggle on both Florida coasts.

“As we approach the [Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule] study, this is the conversation going on and it’s going to get a whole lot more heated and less polite than we’re having right now,” said Patricia Power, an attorney representing the Seminole Tribe, which relies on water from Lake Okeechobee. “There’s always going to be trade-offs, but nobody should bear the full burden of it.

Another algae bloom is building on Lake Okeechobee. In 2016, the algae bloom impacted the environment and economics of the communities surrounding the lake.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty