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HomeNewsUnderstanding the Discharges...

Understanding the Discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River

Whether you are latest to the Treasure Coast or have just began taking note of the water pollution crisis, this explanation of Lake Okeechobee discharges will show you how to understand this vast, complex, and century-old problem. It centers on two dams that the Army Corps of Engineers opens and closes all year long, which might poison Treasure Coast waters with water from Lake O that comprises pollutants and toxic algae. Toxic algae blooms can pose short- and long-term health risks to people and pets, and the freshwater can kill salt-loving marine plants and animals.

What are Lake Okeechobee discharges?

Lake O fills with rainfall and runoff from the Kissimmee River watershed, which stretches from Orlando to Okeechobee. Historically, excess water naturally overflowed south to the Everglades until people developed farms, homesteads, and towns that blocked the flow. To make matters worse, the primary earthen dams across the lake were in-built 1915.

After hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 breached those dams and drowned over 2,500 people, the Army Corps used sand, rock, gravel, shells, and limestone to construct higher dams from 1932-1938. For the reason that Sixties, the agency has been expanding, raising, widening, and strengthening those dams into today’s Herbert Hoover Dike, which is 143 miles across the lake, 34 feet tall, and 200 feet wide at its base.

The Everglades Agricultural Area is where the agency is constructing the EAA reservoir to capture, clean, and release most excess lake water into the Everglades, as nature intended. But where has excess lake water been going for the past 100 years? That’s the foundation of the issue.

Port Mayaca dam to St. Lucie dam

When Lake O rises, the agency opens the Port Mayaca dam (S308) on the east side of Lake O to release water into the C-44 Canal, also called the St. Lucie Canal. Built from 1916-24, the gravity-system canal runs 23 miles, past Indiantown, and to the St. Lucie dam (S80) in Stuart, adjoining to the Martin County-owned Phipps Park west of Kanner Highway.

On the west side of Lake O, the agency releases water into the C-43 Canal by opening two dams – Julian Keen (S77) and Ortona (S78) – after which into the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers by opening the Franklin dam (S79).

The C-43 and C-44 canals form the Okeechobee Waterway that runs from the Atlantic Ocean in Stuart to the Gulf of Mexico in Fort Myers. The locks open to maneuver boats through. The dams open to maneuver water through.

The agency historically wanted Lake O’s level to be about 12.5 by June 1, the beginning of the hurricane season, to make room for heavy summer rains. An Orlando-area storm can deluge Lake O six times faster than the agency can release it.

Under the brand new Lake O management plan the agency is currently writing, called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (or LOSOM), the St. Lucie River will get zero lake discharges unless the lake rises above 16.5 feet. “Send it South” is the refrain of Treasure Coast clean-water advocates who want zero lake discharges – period.

The Miccosukee Tribe within the Alligator Alley Reservation and Big Cypress National Preserve want the identical. But they insist on clean water – with lower than 10 parts per billion of phosphorus – to guard their land, wildlife, and drinking water.

Toxic harmful algal blooms

Lake O’s natural algae increases in the summertime because more intense sunlight over longer days allows for more photosynthesis. The issue is it feasts on nitrogen and phosphorus within the rainfall runoff from Orlando-area farms and development. Blooms could be toxic, deform fish, and suck oxygen out of the water.

The “blue-green algae” – technically a cyanobacteria and mostly the species – is hazardous for people, pets, and wildlife to the touch, ingest, or inhale when it comprises over 8 parts per billion of the toxin microcystin, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Lake O water can carry or spark toxic algae blooms within the C-44 Canal, St. Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie Inlet, and Atlantic Ocean. Guacamole-thick, putrid-smelling algae, which comprises ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, slimed the Treasure Coast in the course of the “Lost Summers” of 2005, 2013, 2016, and 2018. In 2016, toxic algae fouled the beaches, causing Martin and St. Lucie waterfront hotels and restaurants to shut over the lucrative Fourth of July holiday.

In 2018, emergency rooms reported a rise in people complaining of nausea, vomiting, skin rashes, coughing, shortness of breath, and achy limbs and joints. A Stuart vet suspects algae killed one dog and sickened five others. A study found 28 cyanobacteria species, which suggests more potential toxins.

Researchers are conducting myriad studies on the short- and long-term health effects. Thus far, they’ve linked it to liver disease and the BMAA toxin, which is suspected of causing neurological ailments reminiscent of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Lake O discharges in spring 1998, 2010, and 2012 – before algae had formed within the lake – still caused problems as a consequence of excessive freshwater. In 1998, fish lost their protective outer coatings, causing lesions and other deformities. In 2013, practically all of the oysters within the St. Lucie estuary died.

C-44 Canal from Lake O to Stuart

The C-44 Canal’s water level poses problems with its own. When it’s too low (below 14 feet), the agency opens the Port Mayaca dam and releases water into the canal for several reasons:

Martin County farmers need irrigation water for his or her crops.

South Florida municipalities need drinking water for his or her residents.

Boaters need a minimum canal level of 14 feet to navigate safely through the locks.

Stormwater treatment areas need more water within the dry season to operate properly.

When the canal level is simply too high (over 14.5 feet), the agency opens the St. Lucie dam and releases water into the St. Lucie River in Stuart. On rare occasions, it allows water to flow back into Lake O.

The canal rises for 2 reasons: Lake O discharges and/or rainfall runoff within the C-44 basin, mostly from farms in western Martin County. The excellence between the 2 sources of water is significant because they cause different environmental problems.

Lake O water poses three major issues:

It’s freshwater that may kill salt-loving marine plants and animals, reminiscent of oysters and seagrasses. The latter is the principal food source for manatees and protective nurseries for fish and other species.

Toxic algae blooms can flow from the lake to the ocean.

Algae that hasn’t bloomed can achieve this when it flows into the canal or river and feasts on the nitrogen and phosphorus in those waterways. The first source of that pollution is fertilizer washing off farms. Agricultural interests inaccurately blame secondary sources reminiscent of lawn fertilizer and leaky septic tanks, but scientists concur that only Lake O discharges spark algae blooms within the canal and river.

Rainfall runoff poses two major issues:

The Army Corps built the C-44 Reservoir near Indiantown, and the SFWMD is constructing the C-43 Reservoir near LaBelle to store, clean, and move Lake O water south to the Everglades as a substitute of discharging it east and west. Each reservoirs have had construction and operation issues.

The Army Corps can also be constructing the EAA reservoir to carry 78.2 billion gallons of water. That is not enough to stop all discharges, but it surely is estimated to curb them by 63% when combined with all other water-storage projects.



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