Ed Killer
 
| Treasure Coast Newspapers

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The last day of Summer 2020 was a wet one in Old Palm City. Brown water slowly pushed up mangrove-lined creeks and over the tops of docks.

River water inched toward the thresholds of homes. Driveways were better suited for kayaks than cars. High tide in the South Fork of the St. Lucie River was about 3 p.m. Sept. 21.

The first of the king tides of autumn had arrived. A 30-mile easterly wind spun off from the short-lived Hurricane Teddy, though it was well out to sea from Florida’s East Coast.

Water also stacked up along the shorelines from Cape Canaveral to Biscayne Bay. The outgoing tide at inlets had to work harder against the friction of the wind.  

The tidal event made the waters of the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon look murkier than they already had been for months. All I could wonder was how much worse could it have been if Lake Okeechobee discharges were underway?

The Army Corps of Engineers, which on Sept. 18 warned discharges were impending, announced Friday it would not start discharges yet, but likely will soon enough. 

Army Corps: “We don’t want to, but if we have to, we will.”

New normal?

Damage to the estuary has been ongoing since the lake was artificially connected to the river nearly a century ago.

Capt Mike Holliday, a Martin County fishing guide for 30 years and recently named program and outreach coordinator of the nonprofit Captains for Clean Water, said he fears the poor water quality in our rivers and estuaries is starting to become widely accepted as something we all live with.

“People are starting to think this water is normal,” he said, noting newcomers have no idea how beautiful our waterways once were. “It’s been horrible all summer. Some days, the water stinks really bad. It has all been local runoff and somehow, surprisingly, the St. Lucie River has been pretty healthy all summer.

“There have been some small baitfish and shrimp up in the river,” he said, “but if we do get discharges, those smaller marine critters can’t get out of the way. They’ll all die.”

Holliday said the lush grass flats in the Stuart area of the Indian River Lagoon may be gone for good. Some spots that had thick meadows of knee-high shoal grass have been barren sand since the hurricanes of 2004.

Nearly annual Lake O discharge events since then smothered the estuary with muddy, nutrient-laden freshwater never intended for these salty and brackish waters. 

“Sailfish Point flats are still dead,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever see it revert back to what we once had in my lifetime.”

Holliday, a former award-winning outdoors columnist for the St. Lucie News Tribune, said what’s in the lake water also causes great concern for residents downstream.

“Who knows what’s in that water?” he said. “There can be toxic algae. We know we have fecal coliform bacteria already. There are chemicals and mercury in that water, plus nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. And what about all the herbicide they are spraying on Lake O?”

Holliday has every right to be fed up with this plumbing system. Stuart and Fort Myers have been on the wrong end of a flush for decades. Thousands of voices have been trying to change it for years, but only recently has the agency responsible for moving the water been responsive.

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The gifts of the wonderful river

Carl Hiaasen narrates a 1958 Ernie Lyons column called “The gifts of the wonderful river.”

Said no one ever

The Year 2020 has been a steady stream of things no one wants. Add Lake Okeechobee discharges to the ever-growing list: 

The reason? Potential rainfall generated from a record season of tropical storm activity could cause the level of Florida’s largest lake to continue to rise. If the lake rises too high, it could compromise the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike encircling the lake.   

“If we get another foot in the coming month, that puts the lake over 16 feet,” said Florida commander Col. Andrew Kelly. “That is not good, especially when you factor in the possibility that a hurricane could put another 3 feet on the lake.”

More: Mast urges Army Corps to delay discharges

Kelly must be cautious. His agency is trying to manage one of the most complex flood control systems in North America, in an environment that is constantly changing. Just six months ago, an extended dry period caused lake levels to drop extremely low, worrying agricultural interests that depend on the lake for irrigation needs. Now, it’s too high.

We just can’t get anything right in 2020, can we? 

Crash course

For those of you who just moved here, you will soon learn a skill most longtime Martin Countians already possess: lake-level watching. Here is a crash course:

  • Rain falls on 100 miles of land between Orlando and Okeechobee
  • The rain accumulates and begins moving south, slowly at first
  • More rain makes the water move faster
  • Canals that connect natural lakes send the water into Lake O
  • The lake’s water level rises
  • 100 years ago, almost all that water flowed south into the Everglades, but a dike now acts like a dam
  • When the lake’s water level gets too high, the Army Corps discharges it east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River
  • Billions of gallons of freshwater fouls the salty estuaries, killing oysters and seagrass 

A couple other pieces of information needed to understand this complex issue:

  • The lake “level,” at 15.24 feet Sept. 24, is the surface’s elevation above sea level, not the depth of the lake, which is much shallower.
  • Lake O is 467,000 acres or 730 square miles
  • Lake O never was naturally connected to the St. Lucie River. A 23-mile-long manmade canal was dug in the 1920s to help with cross-state nautical travel and flood control
  • The Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule 2008, the “battle book,” as Kelly’s predecessor, Col. Jason Kirk called it, mandates managing the lake level between 12.5-15.5 feet throughout the rainy season. This was set in response to keeping it lower while dike rehab projects were underway.

Hold off

I understand the predicament the Corps is in. But I feel the agency has much more wiggle room here than it may appear on the surface.

Whether to discharge or not is a question that will loom over the coastal communities until the 2020 hurricane season is over. With any luck, we’ve already seen it turn the corner, as indicated by this week’s sudden lack of storms spinning in the Atlantic.

There are at least four good reasons the Corps should not discharge any lake water to the St. Lucie River: king tides, low lakeside flood risk, water storage and estuary damage.

King tides

The king tides are not over. More will occur with moon phases Oct. 15-20 and Nov. 14-17.

To lower the level of the C-44 canal, as much as 300-400 million gallons of rainfall runoff from western Martin County farms has been discharged daily for the past month. The last thing anyone needs is to double that.

Onshore easterly winds exacerbate the problem. The Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule prevents the Corps from discharging water when the tides are high, spokesperson Jim Yocum said, but policy is different than prioritization.

“We are constantly monitoring the tides, the winds and the rainfall forecast, and we are trying to make sure we don’t discharge when these conditoons won’t allow for it,” Kelly said.       

Low lakeside flood risk

Since 2005, the Corps has been repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike, all 143 miles of it. A concrete wall is being constructed at its base inside the 34-foot-tall dike. The purpose is to prevent the dike from collapsing and flooding Glades farming communities such as Pahokee, Belle Glade, South Bay and Clewiston. 

The project has cost $1.8 billion so far and will be completed in 2022, Yocum said. Initially, it was estimated to cost $900 million and be completed in 2015.  

A 21-mile stretch has been completed from Port Mayaca to Pahokee, and another stretch from South Bay to Clewiston is nearly completed.

Although the Corps is in the midst of a process to reconfigure the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, it can deviate from the regulation schedule set in 2008.

Keeping the water as high as 16 feet most likely will not cause problems for the dike. Despite what people think, it is not a situation like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina caused breaches in those dikes.

The level is not pushing against the dike as if it was an earthen wall holding back water. 

Water storage

In 2019, the Corps deviated from its lake operations guidelines and discharged 8 billion gallons of lake water to the St. Lucie River for 36 days during the dry winter season, from Feb. 23 to March 30. The Corps did so to prevent more voluminous and protracted discharges at the start of the summer rainy season, June 1.

It worked. There have been no Lake O discharges since. However, as the 2019 dry season wore on, agricultural interests began to complain the lake was being kept too low for them to draw irrigation water. The same complaints were heard during this dry season: The 2019 deviation caused water to be too low in 2020.

Well, then, store the water in a reservoir and don’t put it where it doesn’t belong.

Estuary damage 

This year has not been kind to the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River estuary.

Local runoff from the canals draining the western and urban lands of Martin and St. Lucie counties — C-23 and C-24 — has been enough to keep the waters partly fouled all summer.

But on the Corps’ decision tree for Lake O management, estuary health is not first on the priority list. 

Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer. Become a valued customer by subscribing to TCPalm. To interact with Ed, friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at ed.killer@tcpalm.com.

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