The harmful Lake Okeechobee water dumps into the St. Lucie Estuary will end tomorrow, following drier weather that allowed lake levels to slip to 15.4 feet above sea level.
The discharges, which have been ongoing since February when an unusually rainy dry season filled the lake to uncomfortable levels, are blamed for a widespread algae outbreak last summer that filled coves and inlets with thick smelly green algae.
Lake Okeechobee is surrounded by an earthen dam vulnerable to leakage if the lake gets too high. The dam protects communities around the lake from flooding.
“Drier weather has taken hold and the lake continues to recede,” said Candida Bronson, actiong operations division chief for the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Barring an unexpected heavy-rain event, we expect the recession to continue.”
While discharges into the St. Lucie are ending, the Caloosahatchee River will continue to receive 4.2 million gallons of lake water per day. That’s a 76 percent reduction from last week.
The National Weather Service in Miami said the dry season began in South Florida on Oct. 17.
What to do with excess Lake Okeechobee water is a decades-long debate, a problem caused when humans rerouted Florida’s natural plumbing system to build homes, roads and farms. The St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries bear the brunt of disposing of lake water as they open to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The toll it takes on those brackish-water ecosystems is tremendous. In June, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency because of the algae outbreak, which is believed to be “seeded” by the Lake Okeechobee discharges.
While projects are underway to alleviate the problem, such as bridging the Tamiami Trail so that water can flow under the road and south into drought-stricken Florida Bay, the algae outbreak renewed a call for immediate action.
In August, Sen. Joe Negron, floated an ambitious plan to buy land south of bloated Lake Okeechobee for water storage. The $2.4 billion proposal is expected to be discussed during the upcoming legislative session.