Gov. Ron DeSantis is calling into question the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ management of Lake Okeechobee, as he pressed the Corps to lower the lake’s water levels ahead of hurricane season.
The newest comments could be seen as another front in the Governor’s battle with President Joe Biden, whose administration now oversees the Corps. DeSantis spoke Monday at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound after a helicopter tour to survey the lake and the algae inside. DeSantis said the lake levels are higher than in recent years and that could prompt discharges from the lake that spread algae elsewhere.
“If you have a normal type of rainy season in the state of Florida, that very well may precipitate the Army Corps doing some of these harmful discharges this summer,” DeSantis said.
“We are seeing evidence of blooms in and around the lake, and because of these high levels, we are assuming that the Corps is going to be discharging some of this water with a lot of algae content.”
When asked to describe his assessment of the helicopter ride to survey the algae, DeSantis conceded he didn’t see quite as much algae as he expected.
“There were definitely some patches. I thought I was going to see more in some other areas. Maybe that’s a good sign. I think the folks we were with on the helicopter said that it probably is better than it was last week.”
If the lake’s water levels are too high, it runs the risk of causing flooding to surrounding areas during a storm. It can also cause stress to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which is undergoing upgrades that are scheduled to be complete by 2022.
Those upgrades could allow the lake to safely be kept at higher water levels. For now, water is discharged in those circumstances to help prevent strain or flooding.
Keeping the lake low reduces the need for continuous discharges. But keeping the lake too low can also create issues. Farmers rely on the lake as a water source, as do several local municipalities, such as West Palm Beach, that utilize water from Lake Okeechobee. If the water levels are low and a dry spell hits, that supply chain can be cut.
DeSantis, who came into office in 2019, said he was more satisfied with the Corps’ lake management under President Donald Trump.
“We were very happy with 2019 and 2020 in terms of how the lake was managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. There was a desire and a plan to try to minimize harmful discharges over the summer months, which is obviously when we’re at most risk to have algal blooms in our estuaries.”
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, who has consistently pushed for lower lake levels to lessen those discharges, backed DeSantis in that assessment.
“It was successful before. The Corps needs to go back to using common sense,” Mast said. “Lower the levels of that lake before they get into hurricane season. Give it more room.”
DeSantis has focused on funding reservoir projects south of the lake during the first two years of his tenure. But he said there’s a limit to what the state can physically do to improve water quality and manage the lake’s massive water reserves.
“We obviously are building more infrastructure to address it, investing in technologies,” DeSantis said. “But when you have the sheer quantity of water that can be dumped into these estuaries, I mean, it’s just something that really overwhelms, certainly, the state’s ability to mitigate.”
He and other advocates argued that burden is on the Army Corps. A top issue discussed Monday was the Corps’ water management schedule, which helps set the range at which the lake’s water levels can sit. Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said the prevention of algal blooms should be near the top of the Corps’ mind.
“Pick a plan that delivers water to the south during the dry season, during the dry months,” Eikenberg pleaded. “As the Governor has said countless times, send water south to the Keys, to Florida Bay. That water recharges the aquifer.”
Secretary Noah Valenstein of the Department of Environmental Protection voiced confidence that the state and federal government could arrive at a plan that works for all parties.
“Certainly, we can avoid having harmful discharges (and) still protect our environment, still protect our economic growth.”