No changes in Lake Okeechobee discharges

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced this morning there will be no changes in discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

The lake stood at 14.62 feet today, down 1.10 feet from last week, but up nearly a foot since the lake hit a low point for the year in May of 13.64 feet.

Algae flows out of Lake Okeechobee on Friday, July 8. Photo by Palm Beach Post photographer Joe Forzano

Algae flows out of Lake Okeechobee on Friday, July 8. Photo by Palm Beach Post photographer Joe Forzano

An average of  420 million gallons per day of Lake Okeechobee water is flowing into the St. Lucie Estuary. The Caloosahatchee is getting about 1.8 billion gallons per day.

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The freshwater releases damage the plants and animals that live in the brackish water of the estuaries and “seed” algae blooms.

In June, a widespread blue-green algae outbreak covered areas of the St. Lucie River and caused the temporary closure of popular Bathtub Beach.

While coastal Palm Beach County is down more than 5 inches of rain since June 1, the 16 county region overseen by the South Florida Water Management District had a more normal June and July as a whole with a deficit of about 1 inch of rain.

“We’ve seen an increase in precipitation over the past 48 hours,” said Candida Bronson, acting operations division chief for the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps. “Although the lake has dropped slightly over the past week, additional rain is in the forecast that could reverse that trend.”

Read: One tropical system could push Lake Okeechobee over the edge

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for managing water levels in LakeOkeechobee so the aging Herbert Hoover Dike doesn’t erode, putting communities around the lake in danger of flooding.

The Corps likes to keep the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level. The highest the lake has been was 18.7 feet in 1947, said John Campbell, a spokesman for the Corps.

In a presentation today to the South Florida Water Management District’s Water Resources Advisory Commission, staff members said the algae problem has dramatically improved over the past month.

Capture

Before and after pictures of the algae bloom following a change in how water is released from Lake Okeechobee.

Terrie Bates, division director for water resources, said 123 algae samples have been taken from waterways in Palm Beach, Martin and Lee counties since June. Of those, 15 included toxins.

Three of the toxic readings were found in Palm Beach County, but more recent tests show no toxins in those same areas.

Capture

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“We’ve tried to maximize what we could do short term,” Bates said about water district measures taken to reduce the algae bloom. “Once the water gets into the lake and we are dealing with water of poor quality, it’s just adding to the nutrient problem.”

Martin County Commissioner Ed Fielding thanked the district for making changes that reduced the algae in the St. Lucie River.

“You made the provisions that allowed the Army Corps to give us relief,” Fielding said. “It’s been effective and useful and we appreciate it.”

In February, Lake Okeechobee reached 16.4 feet after the wettest January on record left the 16 counties overseen by the South Florida Water Management District with 7.25 inches of rain above normal.

Summa Beach in West Palm Beach on June 22, 2016. The algae on this beach tested negative for toxins in the most recent results.

Summa Beach in West Palm Beach on June 22, 2016. The algae on this beach tested negative for toxins in the most recent results.

Since then, billions of gallons per day of fresh lake water has been released into the brackish ecosystems of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Still, the lake level July 1 was the highest for that date in a decade.

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