Putting the brakes on Lake O releases

The recent rainy weather will likely mean more water coming down the Caloosahatchee to ease pressure on the Lake O dike… which is a good time to remind everyone that fixing the Okeechobee problem takes a combination of infrastructure, management and plain old political will. Whether (as these two pieces suggest) you stop the water coming into the lake from the north or work to release more of it to the south, we all need to push to control the releases east and west for the sake of our water quality, our health and our environment.

Originally published in the News-Press by Eric Eikenberg on Nov. 2, 2020

Let’s manage Lake Okeechobee in a smarter, fairer way

For the fourth time in the last five years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided to flush billions of gallons of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.

If history is any guide, what happens next will be the destruction of critical fish habitat and the potential emergence of toxic algae blooms that have repeatedly forced beach closures and fishing restrictions on both our coasts, crushing tourism, and devastating local economies.

For decades, Florida has wrestled with this conundrum. To avoid failure of an aging dike around Lake Okeechobee, vast quantities of freshwater are dumped to our coasts while, to the south, a parched Everglades and hypersaline Florida Bay wither. Water that is needed year-round to replenish the drinking water supply for millions of Floridians is instead flushed to sea causing both ecological and economic harm in the process.   

Scientists and policymakers alike know that the long-term solution to these problems is to build infrastructure to re-direct this flow south, and more than $1 billion of construction has already been completed in the southern Everglades, including more than 3 miles of bridges on Tamiami Trail.

Governor DeSantis’ $2.5 billion funding commitment and support for sending water south is helping to advance key water storage projects like the Everglades reservoir. This water infrastructure will ultimately restore (as near as possible) the natural southerly flow of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades and, from there, to Florida Bay. 

Even while construction of these massive Everglades restoration projects is still underway, there is still much we can do to avoid these algae-causing discharges.

Existing infrastructure can be utilized immediately to protect our coastal communities and give relief to the Everglades and Florida Bay below. 

The Army Corps of Engineers is now in the process of revising the operating rules for Lake Okeechobee. The new rules should be written to permit more water to be released to the south during the late fall and early winter – the dry season, when rainfall is at its lowest and the waterless Everglades is most in need.

Besides replenishing the often-scorched Everglades, this new dry season flow of fresh water will also revive the Biscayne Aquifer, the primary water supply for more than 5 million along Florida’s lower east coast. Further to the south, the runoff will help resuscitate Florida Bay, which suffers nearly every year from a lack of freshwater. 

Meanwhile, by reducing the volume of water in the Lake during the dry season, the risk of flooding is lessened when the rains do come, making these toxic discharges less likely. 

After the devastating toxic algae blooms of 2018, the Army Corps of Engineers took the step of releasing more water to the south during the 2019 dry season. As a result, Lake Okeechobee water levels were reduced below 11 feet ahead of the rainy season, the flooding risk was reduced and there was no need for algae-causing discharges in 2019. 

Sadly, in 2020, the Corps reverted to business as usual, sending almost no water south in the dry season, leading to wildfires in the Everglades and a severe water shortage in south Florida that led to rationing in major metropolitan areas. Now, wet season rains have forced a new round of discharges, foreshadowing outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae in the months ahead.  

By doing nothing, Florida will continue to careen from seasons of deadly drought to seasons of toxic blue-green algae.

We can avoid this erratic seesaw by using the infrastructure we’ve already built and sending water south during the dry season instead of hoarding it: let’s manage Lake Okeechobee in a smarter, fairer, and safer way that benefits all of us.

Eric Eikenberg is CEO of The Everglades Foundation.

Originally Published in the News-Press by Scott Martin on Oct. 28, 2020

We can’t stop the rain, but we can slow the flow

If you make a living on the water like I do or care about our Florida waters, you’ve watched this hurricane season closely. While we’ve been spared the brunt of these storms thus far, our state has been absolutely inundated with excess water in addition to our normal daily thunderstorms.

Much of this rainfall drains south from Orlando through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes straight into Lake Okeechobee. More than 95% of the water entering Lake O comes from the northern tributaries, and since that drainage area is six times larger than the Lake — for every inch of rain that flows from north of the lake, the lake quickly can rise six inches.

So, if we’re going to fix the water quantity and quality issues caused throughout our system by all this rainfall, we’ve got to stop most of this water at the source before it ever reaches Lake Okeechobee.

Right now, the greater Everglades system is fully saturated — from top to bottom, Orlando to Key West — including the Water Conservation Areas and Everglades National Park (which are also getting flooded with local rainfall). There is literally nowhere for the water to go but out to tide.

With Lake Okeechobee above 16 feet and continuing to rise, the Army Corps of Engineers has no other options than to discharge excess water east and west into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers because the dike is not yet secure. They also are sending what water they can south. In addition, the high water levels are damaging Lake Okeechobee’s submerged grass, which is the filter for the lake’s water.

No one wants damaging discharges, but Lake Okeechobee is not to blame for too much rain and a saturated system. We need to prevent water from the Kissimmee Basin from free flowing into Lake Okeechobee by slowing it down and storing it north of the lake.

There are proven options in the Northern Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project to do just that. We need to fund and expedite this northern storage plan so that it doesn’t come down to the same few, bad options to deal with these water issues year after year.

The last round of discharges was in 2018 when nearly 99% of the water entering Lake Okeechobee came from the northern basin. While both east and west coasts were rightfully upset at dealing with the impact of damaging blue-green algae, our group of local fishermen launched #SlowtheFlow to focus attention and efforts on addressing this problem at its source. We succeeded in getting $100 million to start building storage north of Lake O. But this was just a start. 

There are also a number of other storage projects under construction around the lake that will help with some of the discharges. We should continue building them as scheduled, but to truly fix the discharge problem, we’ve got to start holding significantly more water north of Lake Okeechobee. Clean and store that water in its own region just as we’re building meaningful regional storage in other areas around the lake.

Anglers for Lake Okeechobee is committed to work with our coastal neighbors to help solve these water issues that impact us all. Join our group of fellow fishermen, guides, marina owners, recreational boaters and local families to help protect all our valuable waterways. While we cannot stop the rain, we can work to slow the flow.

A Clewiston native, Scott Martin is a professional angler and co-founder of Anglers for Lake Okeechobee. He grew up fishing on the waters of Lake Okeechobee. 

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