Lake O releases are put on hold

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Monday in Martin, St. Lucie, Palm Beach, Okeechobee, Lee, Glades and Hendry counties on both coasts of Florida because of algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

The governor’s order gives state agencies more flexibility in managing fallout from the harmful algae blooms now occurring in many of the state’s lakes, including Lake Okeechobee, rivers and coastal estuaries. The emergency declaration lets the Department of Environmental Protection and South Florida Water Management District avert environmental and other restrictions against storing more water south of the lake. This will help alleviate the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ need to resume pulse releases from the lake, which were exacerbating the blooms in coastal waterways.

INI Florida/Dale Conyers
An algal bloom flows down the Caloosahatchee River; the view is looking west from the LaBelle bridge.

The governor went to Cape Coral on July 9 to make his own up-close examination of the toxic blue-green algae affecting the Caloosahatchee, its tributaries and other waterways in Southwest Florida. His boat tour began early that morning at Horton Park near the Midpoint Bridge in Cape Coral. He wanted to see the areas on the Caloosahatchee where he’d directed the state Department of Environmental Protection to install more water monitoring stations two weeks ago.

“I’m sure if you’re a boater, if you’re a fisherman, or if you just want to enjoy the water resources, it’s frustrating to see this in the water,” Gov. Scott said. “At the state level, we’re going to continue to do everything we can. I’ve already asked DEP to do some monitoring stations … so we’ll have a better idea … what exactly is causing the problems.”

Releases of excess water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie rivers had been scheduled to resume Monday after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended them the previous week. But the corps put a temporary halt to flows to both rivers July 8, declaring they would be suspended for at least several days and that it would “conduct a full assessment of system conditions.”

“As we look at operations in the system, we believe we can pause discharges for a short time to get additional input from staff on available options for moving water,” the USACE’s Jacksonville District commander, Col. Jason Kirk, said in a news release. “We want to ensure we are using all available flexibility before we resume discharges east and west.”

During Col. Kirk’s visit to the dike June 21, when it was announced that the corps would reduce flows to the east and west, Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner discussed with officials the lake’s recent high levels and the algae that was producing outcries from the coasts about the lake releases.

“Everyone wants to blame Lake Okeechobee,” she said. “Well, Lake O doesn’t produce the water; Lake O doesn’t produce the algae. We know for a fact that there’s algae in Lake Kissimmee.

“Ninety-five percent of the water that comes into Lake Okeechobee is from the north, and so we’re all one connected water system, but we’ve got to focus on the source, and the source is north of Lake Okeechobee.”

She is adamant that those blaming the lake are wrong. “People keep talking about dirty Lake Okeechobee water, (but it does) not produce the algae. We need to look at that northern storage and … at the ASR (Aquifer Storage and Recovery) wells that were already approved.” She said that hardening the dike “still does not solve the water quality issue that’s coming from the north side of Lake Okeechobee.”

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