Florida shores yellow, brown and black all over

A line of black water flowed from the St. Lucie inlet Feb. 22. Scientists say the water is a brew of sediment and freshwater carried from Lake Okeechobee and local watersheds.
A line of black water flowed from the St. Lucie inlet Feb. 22. Scientists say the water is a brew of sediment and freshwater carried from Lake Okeechobee and local watersheds. Courtesy of

What’s yellow, brown and black all over? After a bruising watery winter on the heels of a dry summer, Florida’s water.

In July, a stinky stain scientist call yellow fog spread across Florida Bay after a regional drought killed miles of seagrass. This month, water managers began flushing Lake Okeechobee, a vast shallow bowl more than twice the size of New York City, into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico following record rain. A familiar wave of black water thick with sediment soon flowed east, spreading to corals on the northern remnants of the state’s reef tract. On the west coast, water turned a muddy brown.

“You can't see three inches in the water,” said fishing Capt. Mike Connor, whose Stuart-based business is down 70 percent this year as he struggles to recover from a similar flushing in 2013.

“We get this every two to three years,” he complained. “It's like a punch drunk boxer. You get punched too many times and you just don’t get up.”

Dumping lake water has become a routine move with an aging flood control system incapable of handling Mother Nature’s curve balls. But scientists fear this round of releases, coming so early in the dry season, could be even worse than 1999, when lake releases preceded widespread fish kills. Since the dumping started in January, the normally brackish St. Lucie estuary has changed to almost entirely fresh water, clouded with sediment.

Already alarms are sounding. On Friday, after Conde Nast Traveler warned readers that “excess sludge” was being dumped off beaches, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, blaming problems on the aging dike and the Obama administration.

“Not only is the well-being and health of our families at risk if the Obama Administration doesn’t immediately begin funding repairs to their federally operated dike, but our housing market, tourism industry and agricultural community will fail if the dike is not repaired and properly maintained,” Scott said in a statement.

Locals, meanwhile, dusted off old battle plans: a group of anglers headed to Tallahassee last week to complain while others organized a protest Friday in Stuart. Three mayors from the west coast also flew to Washington to beg for help. A video Connor posted on his Facebook page this month has been viewed more than 377,000 times.

Unfortunately, the writing on the wall is total destruction.

Sewall’s Point commissioner Jacqueline Thurlow-Lippisch

“Unfortunately, the writing on the wall is total destruction,” said Jacqueline Thurlow-Lippisch, a commissioner for Sewall’s Point, the tiny, affluent town that sits on a peninsula dividing the St. Lucie River from the inlet.

“It’s like groundhog day,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m doing this again.”

Problems this year started when record rain hit the region in January. Already saturated from a wet El Niño winter that flooded parts of Miami-Dade County in December — causing $125 million in crop losses in a single week — the lake rose rapidly, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start dumping water to protect the dike.

When releases into the Caloosahatchee river failed to bring down levels fast enough, the Corps started releasing water to the east. On Feb. 4, as the lake continued to rise, the Corps announced it would begin dumping as much water as possible into both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Meanwhile, sprawling water conservation areas to the south of the lake normally used to hold excess water also topped out.

To get rid of the water, the water management district began opening taps wherever possible. More than 5.6 billion gallons of water have been moved into Everglades National Park after Scott asked the Corps to speed up a restoration project. Water in the conservation area is continuing to rise, but at least had slowed by Friday, said district engineering, construction and operations chief John Mitnik.

The district is also pumping up to 96 million gallons of water a day into an emergency detention basin near Miami International Airport constructed after Hurricane Irene in 2000 and has cranked up pumps dumping water into the Miami Canal. Another 5 million gallons a day is being pumped into an aquifer storage and recovery pilot well in Palm Beach County, which was part of larger project scrapped because of questions over effectiveness and ecological impacts.

Even with the extreme pumping and more rain forecast, water managers say they’ll likely need to keep dumping water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee for some time. And the longer the releases last, the bigger the odds for dead seagrass and more toxic consequences.

In Florida, everything is connected by water.

Dennis Hanisak, a director of Marine Ecosystem Health at Florida International University’s Harbor Branch Observatory

“It won’t happen right away. Usually stuff like that happens after the fish have been stressed for a period of time. Kind of like people,” said Dennis Hanisak, a director of Marine Ecosystem Health at Florida International University’s Harbor Branch Observatory where, following the 2013 event, researchers installed monitoring stations to better understand and distinguish impacts from lake water and the local watershed.

“Every time we have this it’s just really challenging to the system,” he said. “In Florida, everything is connected by water.”

Thurlow-Lippisch, echoing environmentalists around the state, says the solution to the problem is simple: more storage south of the lake.

But that solution, first posed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, has been repeatedly rejected by legislators and Scott, even after voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to spend taxes from real estate deals on land to save the Everglades. A bill this year sets aside up to $200 million for the next 20 years on Everglades restoration. But money for land — $27.7 million — went to restoration projects already under way, not a reservoir.

“This year what really has people angry is the Amendment 1 money,” Connor said. “We thought that was a blessing for us. But the Legislature has stolen the money two years in a row. We’ve had 25 years of promises here and nothing is in the ground.”

When the South Florida Water Management District back-pumped water off fields during record rain in January, the move reignited a bitter fight over who was to blame for pollution that for years has prevented water from moving south. So much phosphorus from fertilizer now sits in sediment at the bottom of the lake — called legacy phosphorus — that some scientists think it will be impossible to ever completely clean it.

U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said up to 80 percent now comes from the north of the lake and water needed to be pumped into the lake to protect communities to the south.

“Contrary to claims that backpumping is used primarily to benefit sugarcane farmers, backpumping is a necessary flood control measure that benefits ‘thousands of families and businesses’ in the Glades communities,” she said in an email this week.

Clewiston mayor Phillip Roland called an account by Earthjustice attorney David Guest, “yet another mean-spirited and false assault on local farmers living and working in the Everglades Agricultural Area.”

But Thurlow-Lippisch said it’s time for the state to stand up to the politically influential industry.

“We’re not protecting people down there as much as we’re protecting giant corporations,” she said. “They block the water 100 percent. We’re not asking them to open up all of it. We’re just asking to open up some of it.”