The consequences of man’s reroute of Florida’s natural plumbing system culminated — again — Thursday at the steps of the South Florida Water Management District following an outbreak of blue-green algae in Treasure Coast waterways.
Dozens of environmental activists and Glades-area residents packed the district’s West Palm Beach board room to plead their cases on where to put the abundance of water bloating Lake Okeechobee.
The discussion came as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would reduce the damaging freshwater releases from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
The 44 percent reduction in water flowing to the St. Lucie still means a release of an average of 420 million gallons per day. The Caloosahatchee, which goes west into the Gulf, will be reduced to 1.8 billion gallons per day from 1.9 billion.
While water managers hope the reduction, as well as other emergency measures will thwart future widespread blooms, they also decried what they said was misinformation peddled by groups with their own agendas.
While some forms of the blue-green algae – technically a bacteria – that plague the Treasure Coast in late June can be toxic, the vast majority of this type of cyanobacteria is not. Also, while agriculture south of the lake is blamed for sending polluted water into the lake, that practice stopped years ago except in extreme emergencies.
“The public gets information by organizations that have an agenda,” said board member Melanie Peterson. “Just because there is an agenda being pushed by some organizations, doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”
Emergency measures, such as pausing discharges to allow salinity levels in the estuary to increase with natural tidal fluxes, have reduced the blue-green algae that inundated the St. Lucie Estuary last month, district staff members said.
It’s hoped that the reduction in Lake Okeechobee flows will further disrupt algae growth.
“Although the lake is still high for this time of year, current conditions are providing us with the opportunity to further reduce discharges and bring some degree of relief to the estuaries experiencing above normal seasonal algal blooms,” said Col. Jason Kirk, the corps’ Jacksonville
Kirk said drier conditions and continued water releases have brought the lake down to 14.73 feet above sea level from last week’s 14.93 feet.
But Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center, said short-term fixes are not the answer.
“We have a very serious problem and it needs long-term solutions,” Interlandi told board members. “The short term solutions and fixes are like putting a Band-Aid on a heart attack.”
About 100 people attended the water management district’s meeting Thursday, including 30 who signed up to speak during a public comment period before a vote on algae-related agenda items.
“We know we are trying to be God and fix things that happened a long time ago,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Shelley Vana, who urged board members to consider communities in the Glades when making decisions. “Our tri-cities in the Glades are, for me and most commissioners, sacred and we don’t want them to be harmed.”
The board approved spending $2.6 million on emergency actions, such as storing water on private land and holding more water to the north of the lake. That vote was unanimous with Board Chairman Daniel O’Keefe and Mitch Hutchcraft abstaining.
The board also unanimously approved supporting Gov. Rick Scott’s initiative to help pay for the reduction of septic tanks, which add to the harmful nutrients ending up in the estuaries, and asking the federal government to expedite repairs to the dike so it can hold more water.
Scott declared a state of emergency last month in four counties, including Palm Beach.