Lake O discharges: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water| Gil Smart

opinionGil Smart Treasure Coast NewspapersPublished 12:50 PM EDT Sep 21, 2020Sunday morning my wife and I stoo

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Sunday morning my wife and I stood atop the Jensen Beach causeway bridge, looked down and saw a ray swimming in the waters below.

Pretty cool. A few weeks earlier we'd seen our first lagoon dolphins. And along the causeway bridge, on the old Roosevelt Bridge and other spots where people gather to fish there seem to have been pretty thick crowds this summer.

All of which suggests to me there’s plenty to catch. It suggests maybe — just maybe — we’re not being plagued by poor water quality for once.

Shows you what I know.

“In the St. Lucie River it’s been a horrible summer for water quality,” said Indian Riverkeeper Mike Conner.

There haven’t been any discharges from Lake Okeechobee since March 2019. Eighteen months! But canal water — much of it runoff from agricultural fields out west, laden with who-knows-what — has been released into the St. Lucie estuary in pulses at the rate of up to 1 billion gallons per day.

MORE: Army Corps says get ready for Lake O discharges

MORE: Would Pam Keith pay as much attention to water quality as Brian Mast? | Gil Smart

As a result, said Conner, the river “is pretty much fresh all the way down to the hospital (Cleveland Clinic Martin North) … the water is just black, it’s not good.”

Last week the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart gave water quality in the estuary a "C-" grade, "satisfactory." At the South Fork of the river near the St. Lucie Lock and Dam, the water got a 56 percent, "D" grade, and earned the label "destructive."

Hey welcome to paradise, where the water is "destructive!"

Then again, your mileage may vary by location. The lagoon at Jensen Beach got a 92 percent grade, "ideal" — head of the class.

But now? Hold onto your hats.

That 18-month, no-Lake O-discharge period could be coming to a close by the end of the week. TCPalm reported last week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operated the dike around Lake O, is eyeing all the activity in the tropics and getting nervous.

The lake, as of this writing is at 15.18 feet. The Corps wants to keep it below 15.5 feet, but it’s been rising fast. Between Sept. 11-18, it jumped 4.5 inches.

So by the end of the week, up to 630 million gallons of lake and canal water per day could be pouring through the St. Lucie Lock and Dam, making the “not good” situation in the St. Lucie and beyond “even worse.”

If there’s a saving grace here, it’s twofold: First, Conner said the “wedge of water” being forced up the estuaries by Hurricane Teddy out at sea and the king tides could stay the Corps’ hand. Flush all that lake water down the estuary just as that “wedge” is flowing up and it could result in street flooding, said Conner.

Second, blue-green algae isn’t a huge problem in the lake right now, and so — hopefully? — it wouldn't be here, either.

So bottom line: Keep your fingers crossed.

And doesn’t it seem ridiculous that we’re once again forced to rely on Lady Luck to stave off yet more water problems in this waterfront “paradise?”

It really is like déjà vu all over again. Standing at the top of the Jensen Beach causeway bridge, watching the ray or the dolphins in the water below, you can fool yourself into thinking that the problems aren’t so bad. You can tell yourself that since the big headlines have faded, since we haven't seen a full-blown, gooey green, obvious calamity for a while, things are actually getting better.

But the Corps’ announcement last week that discharges could be on the way is proof that ecological calamity is only ever a few heavy rainfalls away.

"If we get discharges now, it'll be so destructive," said Conner. "You could have dark, freshwater all the way up the lagoon to Jensen."

Good thing we saw the ray and the dolphins when we did, I guess.

When I came to Florida five years ago the condition of our local waters floored me. How could Floridians permit this to happen? How can they allow it to continue? Living here, do you somehow become inured to all the problems? Don't people care?

Now, half a decade on, I have a feel for the numbing repetitiveness. Sure, people care, a lot. But it's like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, only to have it roll right down again.

A year without discharges? Great. You'll probably have them next year. No algae for a while? Awesome. But do you know what's being flushed into the water with all that runoff?

Rinse and repeat.

It all deepens my respect for those who keep fighting the fight. It's never over. But they keep swinging.

And as futile as that may seem — imagine what things would look like if they stopped.

Gil Smart is a TCPalm columnist and a member of the Editorial Board. His columns reflect his opinion; if you like what you read please consider subscribing to TCPalm. Gil can be reached at, by phone at (772) 223-4741 or via Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart.
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