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Is Sending Lake O's Water South the Solution to Toxic Discharges?

Dark water from the Caloosahatchee discharges moving south along Estero Island (Big Carlos Pass in the distance to the east). The plume is at least 11 miles south of the mouth of the River. Impacts to nearshore biota will likely be significant. Image taken 11-3-20 by Ralph Arwood, LightHawk Conservation Flying.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing water from Lake Okeechobee as Tropical Storm Eta bears down on South Florida. This can be problematic in more ways than one.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing large discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers ahead of tropical storm Eta. That could be necessary, especially when faced with a tropical storm or hurricane as no one wants a repeat of the hurricane of 1928 that was one of the deadliest on record. The storm devastated the agricultural communities south of the Lake, prompting the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike.

With the water level in Lake Okeechobee already high, John Cassani with the Calusa Waterkeepers said heavy rainfall can create problems.

"That creates a public health and safety issue for communities near the lake that might be flooded out if there's a breach in the dike," said Cassani, adding that repairs to the dike haven't been finished yet. "That's an issue if the lake gets too high and that's part of the reason that the Corps is discharging water at a high rate."

Typically, the lake can fill faster than it can be discharged for the lake's depth to be lowered, he explains.

The Army Corps has been rehabilitating the aging Herbert Hoover Dike for more than a decade, but the project isn’t finished. Cassani said another challenge is how the large amount of polluted lake water being discharged can drive algae blooms, and how that ultimately affects endangered species and their critical habitat. The large freshwater discharges are also problematic for the plants and the animals that are adapted to the brackish water estuaries.

"When we have these discharges at the level that we're getting right now, it basically turns the estuary to essentially all freshwater," says Cassani. "And so many plants and animals that live there just can't tolerate freshwater for a long period of time. Some of the oysters, some of the larval fish, some of the crabs, they need that intermediate salinity level."

Cassani adds that the water being released has a high nutrient content that can feed harmful algal blooms.

Red tide and blue-green algae blooms are toxic to plants, animals, and humans, but the nutrient-rich water releases are still happening.

Lake Okeechobee's water has multiple uses, including drinking water, agricultural irrigation, and even navigation. "My view or my opinion about balance is that the resource isn't getting enough balance. We're not providing enough emphasis on what the natural resources need as opposed to the consumptive uses," said Cassani.

Cassani worries that putting immediate human consumption needs ahead of the ecosystem’s needs is inherently problematic.

"Some stakeholders think that the comprehensive Everglades restoration plan is the answer, but it's a glacially slow process that largely depends on the funding from both the state and the federal government," sad Cassani. "The agencies have been at the restoration now for decades, and, you know, billions of dollars are being spent. And really, there's only a couple of projects that have been completed to date," he says.

Cassani is also concerned about the direction the water is flowing.

"I guess one of my concerns is that there needs to be more balance in terms of moving water south as opposed to the east and west to the what we call the northern estuaries, that be the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie. There's vast damage and destruction that's done from these high volume releases."

Cassani worries the cost to the public is out of balance, which he says can have as much as half a billion dollar impact to property values, just in Southwest Florida alone.

He also notes that historically, the water naturally flowed across the landscape of South Florida. Everybody, he says, is going to have to compromise.

"Where I think the emphasis needs to go is getting back a little closer to that historical hydrology, where the lake would discharge south into the Everglades, and ultimately to Florida Bay. That historic hydrologic model, if you will, I think that would be that would be a big improvement," he notes.

Cassani adds that he’d like to see more storage, treatment, and movement of water through the Everglades Agricultural Area.

However, he notes hat would require farmers to be willing to sell their land to, to create that outcome, and that's something corporate agricultural operations seem uninterested in. "We put a high value on private property rights. How do we get more land that enables more flow south to the Everglades and Florida Bay?"

Cassani said while there are projects in the works to store more lake water, the ideal outcome would be to move more water south, but clearly, the issue is complex, and a new balance is needed that takes into account the ecosystem’s natural course and the plants, endangered species and wildlife that depend upon it.

To watch the water being discharged from the lake, visit http://w3.saj.usace.army.mil/h2o/cameras.htm. If you see water pollution in your area, you can call the Calusa Waterkeeper hotline at: 239-444-8584.

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