Mast urges Army Corps to delay Lake Okeechobee discharges to St. Lucie River

Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie River are imminent, but the necessity and reasons for them are in dispute — as is almost always the case.

The debate pits the needs of Lake O water users, who want the lake level high to use it as a reservoir, against Treasure Coast residents, who want the lake level low to lessen the chances of discharges, which can carry potentially toxic algae blooms with them.

While the Army Corps of Engineers blames discharges on the lake’s rapid rise from recent heavy rains and the still-active hurricane season, two Treasure Coast environmentalists blame the Army Corps for making the wrong call last year.

In December, the Corps announced it planned to store water in the lake this summer, so farmers and municipalities could draw it for irrigation, drinking and other uses. 

Indian Riverkeeper Mike Conner and Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, immediately predicted that decision would result in discharges this September, according to previous TCPalm stories.

Instead, they say the Corps should have released a small amount of lake water south and west to the salty Caloosahatchee River, which typically needs a freshwater infusion in summer. That would have kept the lake level lower to store more summer rains.

Predicting discharges

Perry and Conner aren’t so much clairvoyant as good at math … and history.

They know Lake O tends to rise at least 3 feet — usually more — from June 1, the traditional start of the rainy season, to mid-September, the traditional peak of hurricane season. How the Corps reacts to that rise dictates discharges in fall.

More: Army Corps plan for 2020 might not prevent discharges

“I know they will be doing releases to the estuaries then (September),” Perry said in a Dec. 23 TCPalm story about the Corps’ plan to store rather than release water. In the same story, Conner said, “by September, we could be bombed once again.”

More: Lake O discharges could be coming soon, Army Corps says

Sure enough, Col. Andrew Kelly, the Corps commander for Florida, last week warned that discharges are likely as soon as this coming weekend.

“We’re looking at the need to start releases to the estuaries,” Kelly said in a Sept. 18 call-in news conference. “Not this week, but probably soon.”

The estuary, which normally is a brackish mix of fresh and salty water, is already in bad shape because of freshwater flows from canals and tributaries, Conner said.

“It’s what they call a death from a thousand little cuts,” Conner said of smaller discharges. “If the Corps lets the Lake O water out, it would be a slice to the jugular.”

Lower lake level

Heeding community outcry, the Corps allowed Lake O to drop lower than usual for the 2018-19 winter-spring dry season, so the elevation was around 11 feet on June 1, leaving plenty of room for summer rains. The Corps’ target for that date is 12 feet 6 inches.

Summer rains increased the lake level by 3 feet, 2 inches, bringing it to over 14 feet by mid-September — well below the Corps’ 15 feet, 6 inch maximum target for that date.

The result: No discharges to the St. Lucie River estuary last year.

More: Lowering Lake O results in ‘crystal clear’ St. Lucie River

Higher lake level

This year, the lake began the rainy season at about the same level, 11 feet, 3 inches, but the Corps prioritized water storage over curbing discharges.

“In early June to early July, when the lake first started to rise from summer rains, the Corps could have released more water to the south and more water west to the Caloosahatchee,” Perry said this week. “But they were still in the ‘we’ve got to store more water’ mentality.”

As of Tuesday morning, the lake level was was 15 feet, 2¼ inches, a nearly 4-foot rise since June 1 and nearly 4 inches closer to the Corps’ fall threshold.

Kelly this week defended the Corps’ decision, saying a water shortage is still possible.

“It was dry everywhere,” he said. “At that time, it was absolutely the right call to do what we did.”

Lake Okeechobee discharges

The right call now, Perry and Conner said, would be to delay discharges, which ultimately could avoid them altogether this year.

“I wish they’d hold off a little bit,” Conner said this week. “Don’t jump the gun. Don’t think that the lake being at 15 feet is cause for alarm. … If there was a tropical system 600 or 700 miles out that was headed our way, yeah, I’d get it; they’d have to start the discharges. But any threat now would be from a hurricane that hasn’t been born yet.”

More: Tropical Watch: Paulette redevelops, Beta drifting 

The discharges’ damage to the estuary would be far greater than their benefit to the lake, Perry said.

“If they open the gates to lake water, the amount of flow is going to be too much for the estuary to handle and not enough to make much difference in the lake elevation,” Perry said. “Any prolonged discharges would have a serious effect on the estuary’s habitat, particularly on oysters and seagrass.”

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, also called for a delay in discharges, in a letter he sent Kelly Tuesday.

More: Read Congressman Mast’s letter to Colonel Kelly

High volume discharges “remain unnecessary,” Mast wrote, noting Kelly’s previous statement that the Herbert Hoover Dike is not in imminent danger of breaching.

“I recognize that there are no easy choices,” Mast wrote, “but to use a cliché: Choosing to time and again use discharges to the estuaries as your emergency escape valve and expecting different results is the peak of insanity.” 

More: Real-time bacteria counts at Florida beaches, St. Lucie River

Tyler Treadway is an environment reporter who specializes in issues facing the Indian River Lagoon. Support his work on TCPalm.com.  Contact him at 772-221-4219 and tyler.treadway@tcpalm.com.

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