Freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries as a means of managing regional flood risks will resume Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville announced.
The anticipated announcement comes as politicians continue to blame each other for the toxic algae outbreaks in the estuaries.
After touring impacted waters in Southwest Florida on Monday, Gov. Rick Scott issued an emergency order for Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties over the reemergence of toxic algae outbreaks on both coasts, which residents believe are caused by the releases.
“We acknowledge the multiple challenges in this system including this summer’s extensive algal blooms,” Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District commander with the Army Corps of Engineers, said in a press release Thursday. “Through our federal-state dike rehabilitation and Everglades restoration efforts, along with the state and local community investments to control nutrients from the lake and adjacent waterways, we are collective on the path to remedying these multiple challenges.”
In response to Scott’s order, the South Florida Water Management District on Thursday announced it had started to lower water levels in conservation areas as a way to send more water south from the lake.
“These pumps will increase the capacity of water that can be moved out of Water Conservation Area 3B into Shark River Slough and into Everglades National Park by up to 200 cubic feet per second,” a release from the district stated. “Additionally, numerous other permanent and temporary pumps are currently being operated by the District 24 hours a day to move more water out of the conservation areas.”
In addition to increasing the flow into Everglades National Park, which will also start Friday, the water management district will slow flows into the lake from the Kissimmee River and other points north of the river, while moving as much water as possible into other storage areas on the south side of the lake.
The Army Corps had suspended releases into the St. Lucie Estuary on June 30 and into the Caloosahatchee Estuaries on Sunday so a full assessment of system conditions could be undertaken.
The lake level neared 14.5 feet on Thursday, the third highest for this date in 11 years. The lake level has increased more than a foot-and-a-half since May 13 due to record rainfalls. Rain over the past two weeks has caused the lake level to rise just over two inches.
Kirk said the discharges will operate below the limits allowed in the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule for the next two weeks.
“We will implement pulse releases with variable flows that simulate rainfall events in an effort to reduce some of the environmental impacts,” he said in the release.
The Army Corps’ move to limit water levels in the lake is intended to reduce the chance of a major breach of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which is basically a 30-foot-high earthen structure that surrounds the lake. Last week, the corps said that $514.2 million is heading toward repairs of the dike.
The toxic blooms have sparked a political firestorm and erupted into major finger pointing by local, state and federal officials operatives.
Palm Beach real estate magnate Jeff Greene, who is running as a Democrat for governor, called the latest algae outbreak “a direct result of the system collapsing after 20 years of Republican leadership” after taking his own tour of the waters on Wednesday.
Scott, who is trying to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, has blamed his opponent for failing to push Congress to act on water issues affecting South Florida.