The Army Corps of Engineers is slowing the releases from Lake Okeechobee; not stopping them, despite repeated calls from lawmakers and local communities to do just that.
The Corps announced Thursday it would reduce the flows from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. The reduction is expected to begin this weekend. However, Corps officials said they may have to adjust flows if rainfall picks up.
“We’re very aware of the impacts the discharges are making on both the west and the east coast,” said Jim Jeffords, the chief of the Jacksonville district operations division of the Army Corps of Engineers. “Our main concern is the safety of the Herbert Hoover Dike.”
The discharges come at the height of tourist season in Southwest Florida, when thousands of visitors pack the beaches.
“This is killing my town,” said Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda during a meeting Saturday with Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Curt Clawson on the releases.
According to the Treasure Coast Palm newspapers, the Department of Economic Opportunity set up an online survey for business owners in Southwest Florida and the Treasure Coast to help determine how much economic damage the discharges have caused.
Visitors to Lee County spent more than $2.8 billion in 2014, according to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. In 2014, more than half of the visitors came during the winter and spring, typically known as high season for Southwest Florida.
“These maximum releases heading to Lee County right now are about twice what the regulation schedule calls for,” said Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman during a Water Resources Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday. “Can the Corps significantly cut back on the discharges and save what’s left of our tourist season?”
The Army Corps of Engineers began releasing the maximum discharges in early February. Officials said the releases were necessary to draw down the lake after it reached dangerous levels because of a soggy January.
Gov. Rick Scott called on the Army Corps of Engineers to send the water south, but continued heavy rains meant the water couldn’t be pushed south. Last week, the Naples Republican declared a state of emergency in Lee, Martin and St. Lucie counties.
“The negative effects of the floodwaters and harm to wildlife we are currently witnessing in these counties is only the beginning if the president doesn’t fund more than $800 million in needed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike,” he said in a Feb. 26 statement. “Our communities are in imminent danger of prolonged flooding, and environmental devastation is the dike is ever compromised.”
The lake is now at 15.83 feet, down from 16.4 feet on Feb. 8. That’s still above the level the Corps deems safe.
“Lake levels have been failing as a result of water releases, decreased inflows and drier conditions,” Jeffords said in a statement. “Although the lake is still uncomfortably high for this time of year, our water control plan calls for lower flows based on current conditions. If the lake starts rising again, we may have to increase flows; it all depends on the weather.”
Nelson called the reduction “welcome news for all those whose livelihoods depend on these waterways.” However, the Florida Democrat said more work needs to be done.
“We’ve got to keep pressure on lawmakers to fund these Everglades-restoration projects that will provide a more permanent solution to the problem,” he said in a statement.
While Hamman agreed the reduced flows were “a step in the right direction,” he said the Corps of Engineers needs to take steps stop the releases.
“But we’ve been receiving maximum discharges for a month in our estuary and local businesses are feeling the effects,” he said in a statement. “The best thing to do now is to cut off the releases as soon as possible.”