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Corps resumes flows from Lake Okeechobee

By Staff | Jul 13, 2018

Southwest Florida got some good news and some bad on the water quality front this week.

The good?

In the wake of blue-green algal blooms in the Caloosahatchee, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has bumped up its endorsement of a reservoir project intended to mitigate the discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee into the river.

The bad?

After a few days of reprieve, the nutrient-laden water in Lake Okeechobee once again flowed east and west starting today.

“We acknowledge the multiple challenges in this system, including this summer’s extensive algal blooms,” Col. Jason Kirk, the Jacksonville District Army Corps commander, said in a release issued on July 12.

He said the reason the discharges will resume is the threat on the 37,000 people who live around the lake, as well as damage to homes and businesses that could occur if the Herbert Hoover Dike is breached.

The Corps and the South Florida Water Management District are taking steps to allow water to flow south, as much can safely be done, officials said.

The Corps keeps the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet, on average. According to a release from the Corps, the lake is almost at 14.5 feet. It is the third-highest record for this date in 11 years, when the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule was adopted.

In the 14 days following the restoration, the Corps will release 3,000 cubic feet per second to the Caloosahatchee River and 1,800 cubic feet per second to the St. Lucie River.

“Over the upcoming 14-day period, we will operate with discharges slightly lower than the limits in LORS,” Kirk said. “We will implement pulse releases with variable flows that simulate rainfall events in an effort to reduce some of the environmental impacts.”

The Corps will resume measuring the Caloosahatachee releases at the Moore Haven Lock, located near the southwest part of the lake. Several weeks ago, the Corps agreed to measure the release flow at the Franklin Lock near Olga to account for the additional watershed runoff that the river was taking in.

A structure to the south of the Water Conservation Area 3A was authorized to be used today, which will allow water to be released into the Everglades National Park. Also, the water managers are slowing flows north into Lake Okeechobee, the release said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s action of expediting the report on the reservoir is a key component of a long-term solution to send more water south of the lake, rather than to the rivers east and west.

Florida Senate Bill 10 approved a new reservoir south of the lake. It agreed to a state-federal cost share to construction the reservoir. While state approval was granted, federal approval for the reservoir had to be expedited to be included in an upcoming federal bill to get federal funding.

The Corps approved the report for the construction of a reservoir south the lake, thus placing its construction in the federal Water Resources and Development Act action plan.

While the project still must make its way through various legislative committees and receive Congressional approval, it has a White House endorsement and “placeholder” funding has already been earmarked.

The entire cost is estimated as $1.301 billion in the state-federal cost share.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval – months ahead of schedule – was hailed on both sides of the aisle on July 12.

“Very good news for Florida,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, said to open his remarks on the Senate floor. “This morning the Army Corps of Engineers signed off on a long-awaited report that will allow Congress to authorize a new reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee in the upcoming Water Resources Development Act, what we refer to as the water bill.

“Many of us in Florida have been pushing the Army Corps and the Trump administration to approve this project for months and months,” Nelson said. “(It) is so critical because once it’s constructed, it will provide storage so that the Corps doesn’t have to discharge as much water to the east and to the west.”

Congressman Francis Rooney, a Republican who represents District 19, said it was a joint effort.

“Today, the White House officially supported funding for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, which will enable water storage south of Lake Okeechobee and reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee River a project that I have worked to fund throughout my 18 months in Congress,” he said in a prepared statement. “Several weeks ago, I met with Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. During our meeting I directly advocated for this project and the necessity of its immediate construction. In coordination with Gov. Scott’s conversation with the president, we are now seeing the success that comes with a focused effort, willing administration, and 18 months of hard work. If this commitment to solving our water quality issues were present 18 years ago, instead of 18 months ago, our current algae blooms would not be occurring. Working together, we can and will restore the health of our waterways and Everglades.”

Meanwhile, the governor declared a state of emergency for Lee County on July 9 after taking a tour of the Caloosahatchee River and seeing for himself how algal blooms have impacted water quality.

The next day, the city of Sanibel and Mayor Kevin Ruane issued another call to action.

“Freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee and stormwater runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed are resulting in extensive blue-green algae blooms that are currently impacting more than 60 miles of the 75-mile Caloosahatchee River and Estuary,” Ruane reported on July 10. “The blue-green algae, also referred to as cyanobacteria, have been identified as Microcystis aeruginosa, a known toxin-producing species. These blooms have resulted in beach closures along the Caloosahatchee and have prompted the Florida Department of Health to post warnings to avoid contact with the algae.”

“The ongoing water quality problems associated with Lake Okeechobee releases and runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed must be addressed immediately,” he continued. “This is critical for the health and safety of our coastal communities, to protect the ecology of our river and estuary, and to preserve our quality of life and local economy.”

“We need your help in getting the federal, state, and local governments to take swift action to address this important issue,” Ruane added. “Please consider writing to your elected leaders and agency representatives to let them know how these water quality issues are impacting your quality of life.”

Scott came to Southwest Florida for a first-hand look at the urging of the local legislative delegation. The governor took part in a tour by boat that began at Horton Park in Cape Coral, where swim-at-your-own-risk advisories have been posted at all riverfront parks due to the presence of cyanobacteria, a blue-green algae that not only turns affected waters a slimy-looking green but potentially can produce toxins harmful to the human body.

The bloom originated from Lake Okeechobee, the source of water discharges into the river. It made its way down to Moore Haven, to LaBelle and spread to Davis Boat Ramp on June 18.

Samples were collected by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection at the Cape Coral Yacht Club and Cape Coral Bridge on July 2. It was noted the bloom then was from “shoreline to shoreline extending upstream for miles.”

Scott toured the river and areas where the DEP deployed six water monitoring stations on July 9.

What the governor saw was a sheen of algae on the waters and washing up on shore.

“It’s frustrating to see this in the water. We’re going to do whatever we can. I’ve already asked the DEP to deploy monitoring stations so we’ll have a better idea of what’s causing these problems,” Scott told media outlets covering the event.

Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce President John Lai commented on the state of emergency and pointed out that the islands’ beaches have not been as impacted as other areas.

“Logistically, we are encouraged that the governor has taken action and are looking forward to the creative thinking and opportunities that the declaration can produce to move and store water,” he said on July 10. “However, as a representative of the business community within an elite tourism destination it is difficult to ignore the perceived negative effects that is associated. The water quality on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva remains beautiful and safe.”

In addition to Lee County, Glades, Hendry, Martin Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties were included in the executive order.

Within the order, Scott calls out the federal government in a “failure to act with regards to Lake Okeechobee,” saying he used his state authority to secure $100 million for the Herbert Hoover Dike and accelerated the reservoir project south of the lake.

The monitoring stations will give a better idea of how the water moves and where the algal blooms are coming from.

Last week, state Rep. Dane Eagle and the entire Lee County Legislative delegation requested the governor issue a state of emergency, saying in a July 5 letter to his office that the blooms have created a threat to the local economy and to the health of the environment and residents of Lee County.

The governor’s decision to declare the state of emergency on July 9 following the tour was applauded by those who asked for it.

“We’re thankful to the governor for paying attention to this. He’s been a champion for this. This is something we’re watching and people need to be cautious in the waters,” Eagle said. “This will allow us to tap into immediate funding and put our resources to work. We’re thankful he stepped up to address this.”

Eagle did not join Scott’s boat tour but cruised the waters himself over the weekend.

“There were green ribbons on the water that were thicker in some areas. It’s undeniable there is an algae bloom on the water. It’s not a perception, it’s definitely there,” said Eagle, adding that the waters in the Gulf and around Sanibel and Captiva are in decent shape.

The Lee delegation, which includes Eagle and Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Denise Grimsley and Kathleen Passidomo, as well as Reps. Matt Caldwell, Heather Fitzhagen and Ray Rodrigues, on July 9 sent a second letter, this one to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, requesting that the Corps “Immediately use emergency measures to stop all releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Calooshatchee River.”

The delegation wants the agency to use “all emergency storage abilities” until it is determined that there are no active algal blooms in the river or its estuaries.

“Additionally, we ask that you continue to pursue all options that will reduce discharges in their entirety, including storage north, east, west and south of Lake Okeechobee,” the delegation letter states.

The releases were halted on July 9, but will now resume with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ announcement on July 12.

This is not the first time algal blooms have resulted in a state of emergency to be declared for Lee County.

In 2016, Scott included Lee County on a list of counties in a state of emergency declared because of the cyanobacteria bloom that summer. At that time, Lee County was experiencing a fraction of the blooms that the East Coast was facing, and the inclusion on the list made the tourism industry in Lee take a big hit.

This year, the harmful blooms are in the Caloosahatchee and going downstream, impacting a large swath of local waters.

According to a July 3 Caloosahatchee and Estuary Condition Report sent out by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation – which decried the Corps decision on July 12 to resume the Lake O discharges east and west rather than onto agricultural lands – the cyanobacteria bloom stretches 65 miles of the 75-mile river and estuary, from Moore Haven near the lake to the Cape Coral Bridge.

Rooney, who joined those calling for a better way to handle the discharges, said it is going to take action at every level to mitigate the current crisis.

“It is important that all levels of government, federal, state, and local, work together in the short term to redirect as much water as possible from Lake Okeechobee to the south,” he said. “This will reduce harmful discharges into the Caloosahatchee River and stop destroying our estuaries and bays.”

The state of emergency will help free up money for research and mitigation.

“We just had a successful round of appropriations where we got over $500 million for the dike and $100 million for the CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) projects. We’ve hit a major league home run,” Rooney said. “We need an all-of-the above approach and that’s why it was great for the governor to call a state of emergency and to appropriate $100 million from the legislator in 2018-19 to complement the federal money.”

He joined Scott in decrying what he said has been years of inaction from the top down.

“Unfortunately for all of us, for 18 years, since 2000, Congress has failed to deliver on building out the projects authorized in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), or in completing repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike which would permit retention of more water in the lake and avoid massive discharges into the Caloosahatchee,” Rooney said. “In 18 months of working in Congress I have been laser-focused on our water quality in Southwest Florida, and have worked hard to find every possible avenue of funding to complete CERP projects and expedite completion of the dike repairs and we are now getting results.”

The DEP encourages everyone to be on the lookout for blooms and to report them. Information can be submitted online at www.reportalgalbloom.com, as well as calling toll-free at 1-855-305-3903.

If you are worried that you may be suffering negative health affects from the blue-green algae, contact the Florida Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Residents can monitor and obtain further information about algal blooms by visiting www.floridadep.gov/dear/algal-bloom.

– Chuck Ballaro, CJ Haddad, Tiffany Repecki and Jessica Salmond contributed to the article.