Water release may do little to help St. Lucie estuary

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed Monday to release water from a bloated conservation area into the Everglades, but the massive water dump may do little to help the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Paul Gray, a scientist for Audubon Florida and Lake Okeechobee expert, said there is so much water in the lake, relieving the conservation area west of Broward and Miami-Dade counties won’t be enough to stop flows into the estuaries.

Dark Lake Okeechobee water seen flowing out of St. Lucie River. Photo provided by the office of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

Dark Lake Okeechobee water seen flowing out of St. Lucie River. Photo by Ed Lippisch, provided by the office of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

“What they are doing is good, they need to do it because the water is way too deep,” Gray said about sending water out of the catchment area. “Eventually, once we get the water out of the system, we can send it south, but that’s really, really, unlikely over the next couple of months.”

The water being pumped out of the catchment area is considered fresh and the Everglades Foundation supports the plan.

But the water coming out of Lake Okeechobee and flowing into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers can contain phosphorous and other pollutants.

The agreement Monday releases water from water conservation area 3 into Everglades National Park.

The agreement Monday releases water from water conservation area 3 into Everglades National Park.

Already, dark slicks of Lake Okeechobee water are being seen flowing out of the St. Lucie River.

Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, who is the deputy district commander for South Florida, said the darker water doesn’t mean it’s polluted.

“We have seen this before,” Reynolds said about images appearing of what looks like oil spilling into the waters near Sanibel Island. “Some of the brownish color you are seeing is suspended sediment that’s relatively harmless in and of itself.”

The dark color can also be the result of naturally occurring tannins.

Gray said water discharges into the St. Lucie increased from 6,600 acre-feet per day on Feb. 5 to up to 12,000 acre-feet per day over the past week.

“It’s an immediate reaction,” Gray said. “The whole estuary turns brown and a lot pours into the Atlantic ocean.”

Gray said Lake Okeechobee has only dropped about 2.5 inches in a week, even with the massive discharges.

“If we want to drop another foot, we have to do this for another month at this level,” Gray said. “That’s how much water is in the system.”

Dark Lake Okeechobee water seen flowing out of St. Lucie River. Photo by Ed Lippisch, provided by the office of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

Dark Lake Okeechobee water seen flowing out of St. Lucie River. Photo by Ed Lippisch, provided by the office of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

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