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Concerns over Lake Okeechobee discharges underscore need for Everglades restoration

Posted on April 1, 2024

Communities on both Florida coasts are bracing for impact as they monitor the billions of gallons of water being discharged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Lake Okeechobee since mid-February.

The discharges flow east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River, to alleviate the higher-than-normal water levels caused by one very wet dry season fueled by El Nino. But as the outflows increase, so do the fears of red tide and other harmful algae blooms.

“Because of these releases we’re seeing a really high amount of tannic water which is brown tea-colored water, that’s making its way into the estuary,” explained Codty Pierce, Chief Waterkeeper for Calusa Waterkeeper.

The polluted water is laden with fertilizer runoff from Central Florida farmland and other sources of dangerous nutrients north of the lake such as septic contamination.

“It could inoculate the river with blue-green algae,” Pierce.

“People are scared and they’re alarmed because they don’t want a repeat of what happened back in 2017 and 2018,” added Connie Ramos-Williams, Calusa Waterkeeper executive director.

The year 2018 marked a devastating red tide event that hit every coast of Florida, prompting beach closures, human health impacts, and wildlife deaths.

Red tide is caused by naturally occurring microscopic algae. But, a 2022 study from the University of Florida found that human activity, particularly discharges from the Caloosahatchee River, helped fuel coastal blooms.

The current wave of discharges began in mid-February. Since then, the Calusa Waterkeeper organization has been diligently documenting changes in water quality.

“We are seeing the proliferation of algae, we are not experiencing any type of mortality from fish yet,” explained Pierce.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to date, 46 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee water have been released into the Saint Lucie River, while another 118 billion gallons have poured into the Caloosahatchee River.

“The decision I had to make was to lean more toward flood risk management,” said Col. James Booth, the Jacksonville District Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “[I] acknowledge when I made that decision, I’m having a harmful impact to the environment.”

While we have not seen mass fish mortality, it’s important to note that it’s the hot summer temperatures that exacerbate algae blooms.

All of this underscores why there is an urgent need to repair the flow of water that historically fed the Everglades before the late 1940s. That massive project has finally been kicked into high gear.

Last year, ground was broken on the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, also known as the EAA. The project is comprised of a 10,000-acre reservoir and a 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area that will send clean water south, alleviating the need for harmful discharges to the east and west. But that won’t be finished until 2030.

In January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that crews began filling the first of three cells in the 6,500-acre Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Treatment Area in western Palm Beach County.

It’s the largest restoration project ever, with billions of dollars from both state and federal funds at work across millions of acres. Local 10 Anchor and Environmental Advocate Louis Aguirre got a progress report from the Everglades Foundation.

“It takes time to build this infrastructure and get the system restored,” explained Steve Davis, the foundation’s chief science officer. “You all may know that this area south of the lake was drained for agriculture… today it’s mostly sugarcane farming… that [is what] disconnected the Everglades from the lake.”

Everglades Restoration is about repairing the damage that humans have done.

“I refer to it as bypass surgery for the Everglades because it allows us to take water from the lake, store it, clean it, and send it south,” said Davis. “That’s important because we know that lake water is polluted… we know the water running off those sugar fields is even more polluted. We’re making progress – when that reservoir is complete we’ll be around 70% there. At this time we’re approaching a halfway point.”

Work is also progressing to raise the Tamiami Trail. When the road was built in 1928, nearly the entire water flow was cut off from the southern Everglades.

“Within the next year and a half to two years, we’ll see that completed to where Tamiami Trail will no longer be a bottleneck,” said Davis. “We can alleviate these high water conditions in the water conservation areas and get that water where we want it to go… and that’s down to Florida Bay.”

For coastal communities, the completion of these restoration projects can’t happen soon enough. It’s too early to tell what the long-term impacts these discharges will have, but there is so much at stake.

“We’re all in a pickle,” said Pierce. “What we want to continue to see is this movement that you know the ecology and [in] the restorative efforts for the environmental aspect is becoming a priority… because it is.”

The target date for the completion of the current Everglades restoration project is 2030. By 2040, the Everglades will once again look like the historical Everglades. But the EAA reservoir and sending clean water south is only one piece of this puzzle.

Calusa Waterkeeper underscores that restoration efforts should also include areas north, east, and west of Lake Okeechobee.

As for those discharges, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has scheduled a two-week pause beginning March 30th to give those rivers and estuaries a break.


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