Harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges to increase

Harmful water releases from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary will more than double as lake levels hit a nearly six-year high for the month of May — a critical time with hurricane season just days away.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin releasing 1.1 billion gallons of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie beginning Friday, increasing concerns that a blue-green algae bloom in the lake will cause further damage to estuary ecosystems.

Freshwater discharges, which have been ongoing since January, already hurt sea life that thrive in the brackish, high salinity waters of the estuary. The most recent releases into the St. Lucie were 4.2 million gallons per day.

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To the west, the corps will increase the releases into the Caloosahatchee Estuary to 2.5 billion gallons per day, up from 1.2 billion gallons per day.

“All of the progress we made in lowering the lake has basically been for naught as we are back where we were a month ago,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineer spokesman John Campbell. “We have concerns about the state of the lake. We just don’t have a lot of storage.”

Hurricane season, which roughly coincides with Florida’s rainy season, begins June 1. Already, the National Hurricane Center is tracking a low pressure system forecasters believe could form into a subtropical or tropical cyclone over the weekend.

The storm is expected to take a northwesterly path toward the coastlines from Georgia to the Carolinas and is not forecast to affect South Florida.

The Corps monitors the level of Lake Okeechobee closely because if it gets too high, it could begin to erode the Herbert Hoover Dike, which protects communities around the lake from flooding. The corps likes to keep the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level.

On Thursday, the lake was at 14.38 feet above sea level, close to a May 2010 high mark of 14.57 feet. Last year, the lake was at 12.65 feet above sea level on June 1.

“This is a really tough year,” said Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, who is the deputy district commander for South Florida. “The releases we are making are necessary in order to keep people safe during the wet season and hurricane season.”

The amount of freshwater releases has been on the decline or stable for the past several weeks after a lack of rain in March and April.

But the year started off wet courtesy of the strong El Niño weather pattern. January was deemed the wettest on record after a 16-county area overseen by the South Florida Water Management District got 9.18 inches of rain for the month. That’s 7.25 inches more than normal.

Through Wednesday, the region was still up 8.93 inches of rain for the year.

Reynolds said she sympathizes with the problems the lake water causes in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, and recognizes that the blue-green algae is a concern. She said the most recent measure she has is that the algal bloom had spread to 33 square miles on the south side of Lake Okeechobee.

Algae blooms are common in warm fresh water, but can cause fish kills and be harmful to humans.

Last year, an algal bloom prompted the Martin County Health Department to warn against touching water near the lock and dam that control water releases from the lake.

“We have had a really challenging dry season,” Reynolds said. “Our decisions are based on the health and safety risk of the dam around Lake Okeechobee. That is our first and primary concern.”

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Water is released from Lake Okeechobee through the gates at Port Mayaca into The St. Lucie Canal (C-44). (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

Water is released from Lake Okeechobee through the gates at Port Mayaca into The St. Lucie Canal (C-44). (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

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