Army Corps concedes Lake O discharge toxicity
For the first time ever, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has publicly stated that it discharged water to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers knowing the water was toxic.
This admission comes exactly one year and one day since then-Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for algal blooms in seven Florida counties.
Florida Congressman Brian Mast, who serves at the U.S. representative for Florida’s 18th Congressional District, questioned Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Washington, D.C., on July 10.
Mast asked Spellmon if the Corps has transferred toxic water “from Lake Okeechobee to the east through the C-44 (canal) into the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon and to the west through the Caloosahatchee river?”
Spellmon replied, “Yes, sir. We have conveyed water out the system that has contained cyanobacteria and harmful algae blooms. Yes sir.”
Mast, to be clear, asked, “And the Corps considers that toxic?”
Spellmon replied, “Yes, sir.”
Mast was grateful of Spellmon’s admission and said, “I appreciate that acknowledgment. It’s important so that we can move forward as we try to accurately weigh the risks and assess what’s going on as we try to manage both flood control for those to the south of the Herbert Hoover Dike and human health and human safety impacts to those to the east and west of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.”
Mast’s office stated that the Corps “had previously and repeatedly refused to acknowledge that the water being discharged was toxic or harmful to human health.”
Mast also added in a prepared statement, “Now that the Army Corps acknowledges that the water they are discharging is toxic, they cannot continue to willfully and knowingly poison our community. The Army’s mission is to defend the American people, so they have a duty to prioritize protecting public health when they make operational flood control decisions. The changes they made lowering Lake Okeechobee this winter to prevent discharges are working, and they must commit to making these changes long-term to prevent this massive public health crisis. Anything less than that is a unconscionable failure by our government.”
Water quality and environmental advocates believe that this is a positive step from the ACOE, despite the testimonial’s unnerving language.
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, who has taken the lead on this issue among Lee County’s mayors, said he is encouraged with the ACOE’s transparency.
“I believe it is a step in the right direction as the ACOE needs to take people’s health into consideration when releasing water,” said Ruane. “Public safety should be their No. 1 concern, including health impacts from the toxic water.”
“Major General Spellmon acknowledged yesterday during his congressional testimony that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is fully aware that the water it is discharging into Florida’s coastal communities out of Lake Okeechobee is toxic,” said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of The Everglades Foundation. “While this is disturbing, it is not surprising to residents who have been repeatedly exposed to these discharges. With the Corps’ acknowledgement now on the table, we call on our federal government to act swiftly to avert another public health crisis by expediting Everglades restoration, specifically the most critical and impactful component: the Everglades Reservoir Project that will store, clean and send water south.”
Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani said he is happy to hear the Corps come forward and speak candidly.
“I am encourage that the ACOE is going what the Florida Department of Health has be reluctant to do,” said Cassani. “Seeing a federal agency proactive on harmful algal bloom warnings is refreshing. We would like to see the state providing similar notices.”
Currently, the Corps is not discharging from Lake Okeechobee thanks to runoff from recent storms, but there may be small releases coming soon.
Spokesperson John Campbell said that the Corps are aiming for releases of 450 cubic feet-per-second, and will be kept there for the foreseeable future.
These releases are a fraction of the 4,000 cubic feet-per-second the Caloosahatchee saw last year.
Campbell said that the Corps is also keeping the lake at “lower levels,” as it sits at 11.4 feet currently. Last year at this time, the lake was over 14 feet and in 2016, near 15 feet.
“We attempted to release more than usual in the spring when there was no algae blooms to help release submerged vegetation in Lake Okeechobee. We have seen some success from that, as there are lots of areas of the lake where vegetation is sprouting,” said Campbell.
Aquatic vegetation acts as a natural water filter and can certainly play a role in cleaning algae from infested areas.
Campbell said there has been a “few spots” of algae on the lake and that it is being tested by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The Corps did send out a release on July 5 to warn boaters on Lake Okeechobee of algae blooms and said the district is posting safety tips from the Florida Department of Health on signs at entrances to walkways, boat ramps, campgrounds, fishing piers and other structures.
Future releases depend on weather, said Campbell.
Major weather events, such as a hurricane or tropical storm, could have a large impact on Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS).
When Hurricane Irma hit, lake levels went from 13.6 feet to 17-plus feet.
Releases occur when water levels get high, putting pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike, which is undergoing major maintenance currently.
Campbell said the ACOE’s goal is to see the lake at 13 feet by Oct. 1, when the wet seasons winds down, so that it still may hold enough water for use in the dry season.
Campbell said the direction of Col. Andrew Kelly, who took over as the commander and district engineer of the ACOE Jacksonville District in late August of 2018, has allowed the Corps to aggressively seek out alternative options when it comes to releases.
“Kelly challenged our staff to look at options within our current schedule to not have a repeat of last year,” said Campbell.
Campbell noted that he cannot guarantee that releases won’t happen, but that they weigh difficult decisions daily between releases and having a flood risk to the near-by areas of the dike.
“We’re committed to doing our very best and using all of the tools at our disposal,” said Campbell.
The Army Corps is also re-writing LORS, taking into consideration all of the aforementioned information while doing so.
“How can we find a balance?” asked Campbell of what the ACOE contemplates when discussing new procedures.
It is unclear when the new schedule will be completed.
To stay up to date on the ACOE Jacksonville District, visit www.saj.usace.army.mil.