As business owners, environmental groups, and politicians continue to gnash teeth over toxic blue-green algae blooms and the state of Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is once again starting up freshwater discharges.
Citing a concern over flood management and high lake water levels, the Army Corps said Thursday that the freshwater releases, which run down the Caloosahatchee River to the west, and the St. Lucie River to the east, are set to resume on Friday.
“Our flood-risk-management decision is informed by the fact that a major breach of the Herbert Hoover Dike threatening 37,000 people around the lake could cause consequences that include damage to homes and businesses, direct damage to structures and roads, and costs to remove water from flooded areas over many months,” Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District commander for the Army Corps, said in a release announcing the decision Thursday. “We acknowledge the multiple challenges in this system including this summer’s extensive algal blooms. Through our federal-state dike rehabilitation and Everglades restoration efforts, along with the state and local community investments to control nutrients from the lake and adjacent waterways, we are collective on the path to remedying these multiple challenges.”
The Army Corps said that Lake Okeechobee water levels were at approximately 14.48 feet on Thursday, up over 18 inches from a month ago. They try to keep the lake below 15 feet in the summer to both take pressure off the aging Herbert Hoover Dike, and to allow for capacity for lake inflows from rains to the north of the lake along the Kissimmee River and its tributaries.
In September, rainfall from Hurricane Irma saw the lake’s water level reach a peak of 17.2 feet – the risk of dike failure and the threat of inundating the tens of thousands people who live in communities rimming the lake increases once the water levels get beyond 18 feet.
Thursday’s lake levels were higher than at that point in 2017, as well as the third-highest lake levels since the current release management schedule went into effect in 2008, the Army Corps said.
Meanwhile, 3,000 cubic feet of water per second will begin flowing down the Caloosahatchee River Friday morning, further exasperating local and state leaders, who have seen the river and the area around its mouth first turn a cola-like brown color, and now become coated in a slick of blue-green algae.
Gov. Rick Scott toured the Caloosahatchee on Monday, and declared a state of emergency due to the algae outbreak shortly afterwards.
“You can see it in the water,” Scott told reporters on Monday. “It’s frustrating right now and I’m sure if you are a boater, fisherman, or someone who wants to enjoy the water, it’s frustrating to see this in the water.”
Earlier this week, the White House Office of Management and Budget signed off on a water storage plan that includes a new reservoir and a storm water treatment area that would hold 240,000 acre-feet of water. Congress still needs to approve it, but the proposed site is south of the lake, more in line with the lake’s traditional water flow before the dike was built.
Kirk said that the Army Corps is trying to send as much water southward as they can, thanks in part to an announcement made Thursday by the South Florida Water Management District they were moving water out of their conservation areas to accommodate new lake water.
“These pumps will increase the capacity of water that can be moved out of Water Conservation Area 3B into Shark River Slough and into Everglades National Park by up to 200 cubic feet per second,” a release from the district stated. “Additionally, numerous other permanent and temporary pumps are currently being operated by the District 24 hours a day to move more water out of the conservation areas.”
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