Everglades hero hit with $4.3 million judgment in billionaire’s lawsuit

It was a showdown with Florida flair — a Martin County business with billionaire backing versus a 77-year-old environmentalist with a constitution as tough as Dade County Pine.

For eight days, the case of mining company Lake Point Restoration against storied Everglades protector Maggy Hurchalla played out in front of a jury.

Was their conflict that of a company wronged by a conservationist’s influence over public officials, or a well-heeled entrepreneur with a grudge and the money to satisfy it in a prolonged legal rumble?

WEATHER INSIDER: Like this story? Want more? Sign up for our newsletter

On Wednesday, the six-member jury sided with Lake Point, charging Hurchalla with interfering in an agreement between the company and Martin County, and levying a $4.3 million judgment against her.

Stuart environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla stands behind Florida Oceanographic Society Executive Director Mark Perry on January 16, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner and sister to the late U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, said she will appeal.

“I’m disappointed,” she said leaving the courtroom. “I think the judge made some very bad rulings of law.”

For Lake Point, the ruling is a third victory in a 5-year court battle that already cowed…Read the rest of this twisted tale of taxpayer loss at MyPalmBeachPost.com and find out who the billionaire businessman and former Wellington resident is that brought the suit.

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter.

Lake Point Restoration near Port Mayaca is a controversial public-private partnership mining coarse aggregate, base rock, rip-rap and specialty sand products. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Python suffering? State responds to PETA concerns about video

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has responded to concerns that state-sanctioned Burmese python hunts are cruel and may be causing undue suffering on the invasive species.

In a letter this month to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, FWC defends the programs that encourage contractors and members of the public to remove the damaging snakes from the Everglades ecosystem.

“Members of the public are encouraged to lethally remove pythons to help reduce the threat of this species to our native ecosystem,” wrote Harold “Bud” Vielhauer in a letter to PETA dated Jan. 5.

Related: The Prince of Darkness goes on a #@$%$ python hunt. 

PETA complained about the hunts last month after articles were written about the record 17-foot snake captured by Jason Leon, a contract hunter for the South Florida Water Management District.

A video taken by water management district officials shows Leon explaining how he caught the python and shot it in the head and later in the neck.

PETA said the only humane way to euthanize a python is with a “penetrating captive-bolt gun or gunshot to the brain.

“Proper positioning for the penetration of the captive-bolt or firearm projectile is critical because of the unique physiological characteristics of reptiles, who require immediate destruction of the brain in order to avoid undue pain and suffering,’” wrote Lori Kettler, PETA deputy general counsel.

PETA requested an investigation into the water management district’s program, and others overseen by the FWC.

Since the district’s python elimination program began in March 2017, 877 snakes have been removed from the Everglades.

Vielhauer explains that the commission is committed to “engaging the public in Everglades conservation through invasive species removal,” and mentions no intent to initiate an investigation.

“The Burmese python is an invasive species that has become established in South Florida, including the Florida Everglades and poses a serious threat to native wildlife,” Vielhauer wrote.

Related: Pythons ran amok in the Everglades until these hired guns showed up. 

Florida invasive species experts have said the water management district’s python hunt has been the most successful in catching the voracious predators and bringing attention to the problem.

A native to Asia, the Burmese python is considered one of the largest snakes in the world. FWC’s website says it was likely introduced into the Everglades by accident or intentional releases by pet owners. While not venomous, “the giant constrictors have thrived, assuming a top position on the food web.”

Dusty “Wildman” Crum with previous record python kill of 16-foot-10-inch snake in May. The image of the cat in the back is part of a trail head.

In a statement, the district says all python killings “must be conducted in a humane manner.”

WATCH: Epic battle between python and alligator caught on video.

“Rules of the Python Elimination Program direct all participating hunters to follow American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines in the eradication of these snakes,” the statement said. “District staff review all claims/complaints levied against the program’s hunters and will continue to enforce the rules of the program.”

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Facebook Instagram and Twitter .

Everglades battle: Python loses fight with alligator

Everglades National Park is the site of an epic ecosystem battle between invasive species and local flora and fauna.

Burmese python are one of the most damaging of the unwelcome transplants, decimating local wildlife as they flourish in the warm brackish waters of South Florida.

Read: Five scary non-native animals invading Palm Beach County 

But in a site witnessed by South Florida Water Management District employees last week, a Florida alligator won a small victory for the state’s locals.

Near the east side of the park, an alligator vs. python encounter ended badly for the python.

Photo courtesy South Florida Water Management District, Homestead Field Station
Photo courtesy South Florida Water Management District, Homestead Field Station

The Burmese python is known to swallow entire alligators and is at the top of the food chain in the Everglades.

It is also is blamed for driving several smaller species of wildlife to near-extinction.

A native of subtropical Asia, the python is believed to have gained a foothold in the Everglades because of the combination of irresponsible pet owners and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which damaged zoos, pet shops and exotic animal warehouses that allowed the reptiles to escape.

 

 

 

Sugar growers say Negron’s Lake Okeechobee plan was a surprise

Senate President-designate Joe Negron’s announcement Tuesday promoting a plan to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee to store excess water was a surprise to the land owners, according to Florida Crystals, which owns about 60 percent of the properties identified.

In a statement, Florida Crystals said Negron met with a water management consultant for the company on Thursday, but that Tuesday’s proposal was not part of the discussion.

Negron said Tuesday that he talked to the land owners and briefed “them on the plan that I’m putting forward.”

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

WEB-081016-PBP-NEGRON-PLANS

“Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, whose growers’ land falls within the general footprints shown on the map today, was not invited by the Senator,” a joint statement from Florida Crystals and the cooperative reads.

Negron’s office said a senior policy advisor did reach out several times in early June to the cooperative but messages left were not returned.

Negron identified two parcels of land, both about 60,000 acres each and mostly in Palm Beach County, as areas that could become reservoirs to store excess Lake Okeechobee water instead of sending it into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Download the Palm Beach Post WeatherPlus app here.

Negron said just one parcel is needed to store 120 billion gallons of water.

For more details on Negron’s plan read the story in today’s Palm Beach Post. 

Beginning in February, billions of gallons per day of lake water has been discharged into the fragile estuaries, damaging brackish-water ecosystems and seeding an extensive algae bloom in June and July.

At one point earlier in the year, the Caloosahatchee was getting 4.2 billion gallons per day of lake water, while the St. Lucie was receiving 1.8 billion gallons.

The flows have since been decreased to 420 million gallons per day into the St. Lucie estuary and 1.8 billion into the Caloosahatchee.

But land owners south of the lake aren’t sure about Negron’s plan.

“Taking another 60,000 acres of productive and sustainable farmland out of the EAA will without a doubt close down our sugar mill and put us out of business,” said Barbara Miedema, vice president of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, who said she never got a message that Negron’s office wanted to meet with her. “Sen. Negron’s plan means losing a thousand or more jobs in the Glades communities, not to mention the impact to businesses in the community that provide services to us.”

And some question the feasibility of the $2.4 billion plan, which would mean bonding $100 million in Amendment 1 money and asking the federal government to match the state’s commitment.

The South Florida Water Management District said it did not do the modeling on the land chosen by Negron.

“Everyone is looking for solutions for the system,” Florida Crystals said in a statement. “Our companies strongly support science-based plans that will provide measurable benefits to Lake Okeechobee and the coastal estuaries. Unfortunately, Sen. Negron’s land buy does neither.”

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)

Negron said he knows it won’t be an easy sell to everyone.

“We have our work cut out for us,” he said Tuesday. “In the world of the legislative process and political process, we are in the persuasion business.”

According to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser, the county would be out an estimated $1.3 million in taxes per year if 60,000 acres of agricultural land was no longer on the tax rolls.

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

How much water (and money) should pools lose to evaporation?

It’s not just lawns thirsty for rain in parched Palm Beach County.

Pools are guzzling water too as owners turn on the hose to keep up with what’s sacrificed to the sun.

Up to a quarter-inch of pool water can evaporate per day depending on variables such as shade, wind and swimmer activity, i.e. splashing, cannonballs.

With below-normal rainfall this month, and little in the forecast, pool refills from Mother Nature must be supplemented or pool pumps will start sucking air.

Tim Woodward, senior director of operations for pool leak detection and repair company Red Rhino, said business people may blame the extra pool refills on a leak, when it’s really evaporation.

To determine if your pool is leaking, place a bucket of water on the first step of your pool and after a week, compare the amount of water lost in the pool with the bucket. If it is the same, it shows the water is evaporating and there is no leak.
To determine if your pool is leaking, place a bucket of water on the first step of your pool and after a week, compare the amount of water lost in the pool with the bucket. If it is the same, it shows the water is evaporating and there is no leak.

Download the Palm Beach Post WeatherPlus app here.

Evaporation can be a drain on the wallet. For a pool sized 14 feet by 28 feet, losing a quarter inch of water per day amounts to about 61 gallons daily.

Robert Nelton, spokesman for the Palm Beach County Water Department, did the math on how much 61 gallons per day would add to the monthly bill — about $18.

But for a large pool that is 20 x 40 feet, it’s up to $33.50 per month with 125 gallons lost daily.

To ensure the pool is just suffering evaporation and not a leak, Woodward and Susan Eldred, co-owner of Pinch-A-Penny pool store in Palm Beach Gardens, said owners should conduct a bucket test.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

061415 RES Corcoran pool

Basically, fill a bucket with water, set it on the first step of the pool, and measure the distance between the lip of the bucket and the water level. Do the same with the pool. The water should evaporate about equally in each.

If the pool water is much lower than the water in the bucket after a few days, there may be a leak.

“If the bucket water is lower, the dog’s been drinking out of the bucket,” Eldred said with a laugh.

While there is no discussion of water restrictions, even during the worst of Palm Beach County’s dry spells, pool refills were still allowed. But anyone emptying a pool had to do so onto a lawn or unpaved surface.

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Instagram and Twitter.

County environmental agency: Avoid contact with algae

Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management sent a special email today alerting residents that it is aware of the algae concerns in the Intracoastal and hopes to have results back from testing within a week.

Capture

From ERM:
June 23, 2016 Update
As a follow-up to our email message distributed this morning related to the ongoing Lake Worth Lagoon fishing and photography contests, we want to share that we are aware of an algae bloom currently affecting parts of the lagoon.

Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management staff members have observed the algae in the central portion of the lagoon, in the vicinity of the C-51 Canal, which borders the cities of West Palm Beach and Lake Worth. A blue-green discoloration along the shoreline is visible in portions of this part of the lagoon.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has taken samples of the algae for testing. It is anticipated that the results from these tests will be available within the next week. When available, results should be posted at the following website:https://depnewsroom.wordpress.com/south-florida-algal-bloo…/.

In the meantime, if you plan to recreate in the lagoon, it is recommended that you stay informed, take appropriate precautions and avoid direct contact with the visible bloom.

To view the Florida Department of Health’s blue green algae information card, visit: http://www.floridahealth.gov/…/_documen…/blue-green-card.pdf.

Residents from Lake Worth to downtown West Palm Beach have raised concerns about the algae bloom.

Lila Young, who owns a home on Washington Road in West Palm Beach along the Intracoastal said she’s never seen the algae this bad.

“I’ve owned this house for 30 years,” she said. “We’ll get some seaweed sometimes, but nothing like this.”

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Instagram and Twitter.

Update 1:06 p.m.: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection will test the algae blanketing Summa Beach Park in West Palm Beach.

Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, said DEP asked the district to send samples for examination after residents began asking about the green goo this week.

The C-51 canal, which is discharging about 6,050 gallons per second of runoff into the Intracoastal waterway just south of the park, may be the culprit, algae experts said.

“If this is something new that hasn’t happened before, then it could be an indicator that nutrients are increasing likely from human activities,” said Brian LaPointe, an expert in algae blooms and a a research professor with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Previous story: A West Palm Beach park along the Intracoastal waterway has been blanketed by a bright green algae that has some residents concerned.

The so-called “green tide” was spotted at Summa Beach Park just north of the C-51 canal, which has been sending runoff from recent rains into the Intracoastal.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

FullSizeRender (005)
Algae blankets Summa Beach Park in West Palm Beach

Brian LaPointe, an expert in algae blooms and a a research professor with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, examined a photo of the algae for The Palm Beach Post.

He said it’s hard to tell what type it is from a picture, but that it could be a product of the nutrient rich water from the canal being pumped into the brackish environment.

“You have a variety of different species that are opportunistic,” LaPointe said. “It’s all about the timing. They could be out there and then get a slug of freshwater carrying fertilizers and other runoff.”

Summa Beach Park in relation to C-51 canal (highlighted)
Summa Beach Park in relation to C-51 canal (highlighted)

Download the Palm Beach Post WeatherPlus app here.

Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, said the C-51 canal has been discharging water, but said it wasn’t clear if it was the culprit.

“The easy assumption is to say it’s coming out of the C-51, but this is a little north,” Smith said. “Bottom line is there is algae all over the place in South Florida right now.”

The water flowing out of the C-51 is runoff from multiple areas, including Wellington, Royal Palm Beach and the Lake Worth Drainage District. Smith said he doesn’t believe there is much Lake Okeechobee water going out the canal currently.

Lake Okeechobee has a large blue green algae bloom that was measured at 33 square miles last month. Because lake water is draining into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has been conducting tests of blue-green algae toxicity levels in those areas.

Smith said that most recent tests showed toxins in the lake, but not in samples taken at the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie locks.

Close up picture of algae on Summa Beach Park.
Close up picture of algae on Summa Beach Park.

Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said she wasn’t aware of any specific reports of algal blooms in the area of Summa Beach Park.

The DEP’s algae response website can be found here. 

“DEP and Florida’s water management districts frequently monitor Florida’s water quality, and routinely collect algal bloom samples as soon as they are observed as part of this effort,” Miller said. “In addition, staff can be deployed to take additional samples in response to reported blooms – whether from a citizen, other response team agencies or other sources.”

Health department spokesman Tim O’Connor said the department’s general recommendation is not to swim in the Intracoastal waterway near drainage canals. 

Just north of Summa Beach, the sandy park west of the Southern Boulevard bridge was free of algae.

“The think about algae is it can grow very quickly when nutrients are available,” LaPointe said. “They can double their biomass in one to two days.”

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Instagram and Twitter.

Palm Beach County catches up on rain, what it means for Lake Okeechobee

Palm Beach County has finally caught up on its March rainfall with the heavy showers and thunderstorms this week.

Capture

As of Wednesday, coastal parts of the county had received 3.5 inches of rain, which is 0.17 more than normal, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

Broward and Miami-Dade counties were below normal as of Wednesday, but nearly 5 inches of rain fell in parts of Broward late Wednesday, which is likely to catch parts of that county up.

While coastal Palm Beach needed the rain, Lake Okeechobee did not. 

Travel magazine wrongly says sludge released into Lake Okeechobee. 

Today, the U.S. Army corps of Engineers said it will maintain the current releases of freshwater from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

That means the St. Lucie estuary is still getting 1,170 cubic feet per second (cfs), or 756 million gallons per day. That’s down from 3,600 cfs that was being released at the maximum levels.

About 3,000 cubic feet per second, or 2 billion gallons per day, is being released to the west into the Caloosahatchee estuary. That’s down from 5,900 cfs when maximum amounts were flowing.

As of this morning, the lake was at 15.1 feet above sea level, which is slightly higher than on Monday. The corps likes to keep the lake at between 12.5 and 15.5 feet.

With the rainy season on the horizon, the corps fears keeping that lake at maximum levels.

Despite drenching, March rainfall below normal for South Florida

Last week saw strong storms drenching Boca Raton and northern Palm Beach County, but the rain wasn’t enough to bring March up to normal for the month in South Florida.

According to the South Florida Water Management District, 2.10 inches of rain have fallen in coastal areas of Palm Beach County in March, about 73 percent of what is normal for this time of the month.

In the 16-county region that is managed by the district, rainfall is about 1.27 inches, down 55 percent from the historic norm.

Heavy rains flooded the Jupiter West Plaza parking lot in Jupiter causing shoppers to brave high waters on Friday, March 25, 2016. (Daniel Owen / The Palm Beach Post)
Heavy rains flooded the Jupiter West Plaza parking lot in Jupiter causing shoppers to brave high waters on Friday, March 25, 2016. (Daniel Owen / The Palm Beach Post)

And that’s probably a good thing.

For the year, the 16 counties are nearly 7 inches above normal. 

Coastal Palm Beach County is about 5.5 inches above normal.

The extra rainfall spells trouble for water managers who have to figure out where to put it all.

Lake Okeechobee is still above 15 feet and damaging fresh water continues to gush into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

On Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not reduce releases any further than what it had the previous week. 

Currently, about 756 million gallons per day is flowing into the St. Lucie River. About 2 billion gallons per day is going into the Caloosahatchee.

Capture

But abnormally low rainfall is not what was forecast for this month. The Climate Prediction Center said earlier this year that March would be abnormally rainy in Florida.

“The highest probabilities of increased precipitation are in Florida, where the impacts of El Nino work out with more certainty than other places in the country,” said Climate Prediction Center researcher Huug van den Dool. “March, April and May will be above normal again.”

And March may still be abnormally wet. With four days left in the month, the forecast is for rain every day — chances ranging between 20 percent and 70 percent.

Hundreds of thousands of Floridians will have seawater flood homes

Palm Beach County will have 150,000 people living in areas at risk of sea water inundation if ocean levels rise as predicted through the year 2100.

Nationwide, 13 million people will live in homes that could be flooded by rising seas, according to a new study released Monday that looked at the vulnerability of coastal counties nationwide.

The paper is the first major study to assess the risk from rising seas using year 2100 population forecasts, according to its authors.

A bench off Lake Trail in Palm Beach sits surrounded after water washed in from the Intracoastal Waterway. A combination of the full moon, high tide, and sea level rise are blamed for the flooding. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
A bench off Lake Trail in Palm Beach sits surrounded after water washed in from the Intracoastal Waterway. A combination of the full moon, high tide, and sea level rise are blamed for the flooding. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Titled “Millions projected at risk from sea level rise in the Continental United States,” the study is based on analyses by Jason Evans, an assistant professor of environmental science at Stetson University, and two researchers from the University of Georgia: Mathew Hauer, director of the Applied Demography Program, and Deepak Mishra, an associate professor within the Department of Geography.

“This analysis helps put numbers on something long suspected, but that previously couldn’t be quantified very well,” said Evans. “That rapid development of low-lying coastal areas is putting more and more people at risk of impact from sea level rise.”

Evans said Florida is “by far” the most vulnerable state in the nation to sea level rise, with Monroe, Broward and Miami-Dade counties at the top of the list.

Read: Sea levels rising at fastest rate in 3,000 years. 

About 83 percent of Monroe County’s future population will live in areas that could be flooded by 2100. Scientists believe seas could rise 6 feet by 2100.

In Broward County, 37 percent of the population is expected to be impacted by 2100, while in Miami-Dade County, it’s 36 percent.

The study also looked at how many people would be affected if seas rose 3 feet.

In Palm Beach County, about 26,100 people would likely have to relocate if seas rise 3 feet.

Estimates on how many people will be affected if seas rise three feet by 2100.
Estimates on how many people will be affected if seas rise three feet by 2100.

“For Floridians, the biggest take-home message is that our state is by far the most vulnerable in the nation to this climate change-driven hazard,” said Evans.

This study also provides a measure of potential flooding risks in some of the nation’s fastest-growing communities. In fact, more than a quarter of those living in Miami could face coastal flooding by the end of the century if adaptive measures aren’t taken.

Other areas of the nation that could face severe impacts include Tampa, Charleston, S.C., Poquoson, V.A. and Cape May, N.J.

“Current development patterns are continuing to worsen this vulnerability, despite increasing knowledge about the rates of sea level rise and areas likely to experience future impacts,” Evans added.

A bicyclist heads up Lake Trail in Palm Beach after it flooded Oct. 27 when water rushed in from the Intracoastal Waterway. A combination of the full moon, high tide, and sea level rise are blamed for the flooding. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
A bicyclist heads up Lake Trail in Palm Beach after it flooded Oct. 27 when water rushed in from the Intracoastal Waterway. A combination of the full moon, high tide, and sea level rise are blamed for the flooding. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Lake Okeechobee discharges to be reduced as lake dips below 16 feet

Update 9:30 a.m. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it will reduce releases to Lake Okeechobee.

The announcement about the reduction in releases was made at this morning’s Water Resources Advisory Commission meeting.

The corps will bring releases back down to what its own regulation schedule has been calling for after significantly exceeding the recommended amount for weeks.

(Editorial: Polluted Lake O discharges renew call to ‘send water south’)

Starting tomorrow the corps will reduce to 4000 cfs to the west and 1800 cfs to the east.

“Lake levels have been falling as a result of water releases, decreased inflows, and drier conditions,” said Jim Jeffords, Jacksonville District Operations Division Chief. “Although the lake is still uncomfortably high for this time of year, our water control plan calls for lower flows based on current conditions. If the lake starts rising again, we may have to increase flows; it all depends on the weather.”

Last month, the lake peaked at 16.4 feet above sea level. Today it is at 15.83 feet.

Previous story:

No one questions that releasing Lake Okeechobee water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries is incredibly harmful.

Fresh water flowing into brackish water hurts marine life that is more suited for higher-salinity levels, and the dark, sediment-laden lake water looks terrible flowing into the pristine blues of the rivers.

Add in runoff from northern dairy farms that flows into the lake from tributaries whenever it rains, and bacteria from residential septic tanks that goes directly into the estuaries, and a breeding ground for algae is born.

But some are taking issue with a recent Conde Nast article that said “excess sludge” is what’s being sent out of the lake, onto Florida’s shores, and “just in time for spring break.”

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 provided by the office of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

“The Lake Okeechobee water is not toxic, it’s not killing people. If you eat fish out of the lake, you’re not going to glow,” said Albrey Arrington, a member of the Water Resources Advisory Committee of the South Florida Water Management District, which is meeting this morning. “It’s definitely technically causing problems, but it’s not toxic in the way people are connoting it is.”

The story also says cattle farmers and sugar producers are pumping water from their fields into the lake.

“The story had some things that were misleading, and I have heard from people from other states that question, ‘Is that really the case because I was planning a trip down there,'” said Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District. “It made it sound like the water coming from the farms is constant and the system doesn’t work that way aside from an emergency situation.”

For 96 hours earlier this year, South Florida Water Management District officials said it did back pump polluted water into Lake Okeechobee to save communities around the lake from flooding.

“The back-pumping has only happened a few times over the past decade,” said Judy Sanchez, senior director of communications for U.S. Sugar. “The main thing is, the water being discharged out of the lake is not coming from the farms.”

Water managers will meet this morning to discuss Lake Okeechobee discharges and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a media call scheduled for 11 a.m. It’s unknown if the releases will be decreased, but he lake is under 16 feet as of Wednesday.

Florida’s tricky water balancing act, created decades ago by man’s determination to turn wetland into farms and communities, has been overwhelmed by more than 11 inches of rain this year — 8 inches more than normal.

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.

Emergency measures have opened the floodgates to allow bloated water catchment areas to send water south into Everglades National Park, and Lake Okeechobee is draining full throttle into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

David Guest, the regional head of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, was quoted in the travel magazine story.

He said today “sludge” isn’t exactly the correct word, and that natural tannins in the lake water are responsible for some of the coloring.

But, Guest said there is manure and fertilizer that runs off the northern farms into the lake creating a toxic situation for the estuaries.

“Every time it rains, you are taking tons of fertilizer and pouring it into the lake,” Guest said. “Industrial farming is pouring manure and fertilizer into the lake and it’s turning into a toilet.”

Sanchez questions that when the lake is still a popular place for large fishing tournaments. 

About eight thousand gallons per second of water flows through the South Florida Water Management District's Control Structure S-155 on Canal C-51 in Spillway Park east of Dixie Highway near the Lake Worth and West Palm Beach, Fla. city limits on February 1, 2016. SFWMD is moving water to control canal levels after unprecedented rainfall in the last few months in south Florida. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)
About eight thousand gallons per second of water flows through the South Florida Water Management District’s Control Structure S-155 on Canal C-51 in Spillway Park east of Dixie Highway near the Lake Worth and West Palm Beach, Fla. city limits on February 1, 2016. SFWMD is moving water to control canal levels after unprecedented rainfall in the last few months in south Florida. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

On Friday. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin. St. Lucie and Lee counties because of the discharges.

The order recognizes “extensive environmental harm to wildlife and the aquatic ecosystem” and “severe economic losses” to businesses that rely on the St. Lucie estuary and the Indian River Lagoon. It authorizes the state’s Division of­ ­Emergency Management to coordinate assistance for the three counties from state and federal agencies.

“The big picture here is that state government has simply refused to apply pollution laws to industrial agriculture in this region,” Guest said. “The state of emergency just makes it seem (Scott) doesn’t have his head down the rabbit hole.”

Sending lake water west into the Caloosahatchee and east into the St. Lucie means inundating marine life that thrives in high salinity brackish waters with fresh water.

That alone can cause major damage, including killing oyster beds and sea grasses, said Brian LaPointe, a research professor with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

The sediment in lake water, which adds to the oil-slick look in the Intracoastal near where the river empties, also blocks light from reaching corals on offshore reefs if it gets too heavy.

“But don’t forget, we also have a lot of bacteria and viruses from septic tanks coming from the local watershed,” LaPointe said. “There are multiple sources of freshwater pollution, and they all need to be addressed.”

LaPointe studied the impacts on the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie estuary following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, which came with heavy rainfall. As with this year, Lake Okeechobee discharges combined with local watershed runoff to impact the region.

“Normally when bacteria from septic tanks comes into the marine environment, the higher salinity helps kill it off, but when the salinity goes down because of fresh water coming in with high nutrient levels, the bacteria can grow,” LaPointe said.