(The Center Square) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is demanding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers release water from Lake Okeechobee this spring to lower water levels before hurricane season.
DeSantis said lake levels are higher than in recent years and releasing now makes more sense than discharging Okeechobee’s nutrient-rich water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river systems during the summer.
The Corps releases during rainy summers to offset rising water levels, but those discharges have been blamed for causing outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae blooms across large swaths of South and Southwest Florida.
“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 at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound after returning from a helicopter tour of the lake.
“We are seeing evidence of blooms in and around the lake,” he continued, “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.”
During dry winters/springs, the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) places emphasis on releasing water to meet agricultural irrigation needs. During wet-season summers, the LORS stipulates the 730-square-mile impoundment’s water is to be released as a “buffer” between the lake and the 30-foot high, 143-mile earthen Herbert Hoover Dike that rings it.
The LORS runs through 2022 when repairs on the Hoover Dike, built in 1928, and construction of the $1.6 billion, 240,000-acre-foot EAA reservoir are underway as part of the 40-year, $8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) approved by Congress in 2000.
In 2018, however, after nutrient-rich discharges from Lake Okeechobee were among causes cited in creating toxic blue-green algae blooms that befouled the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river systems for months, the Corps agreed to more winter and spring releases when cooler water is less algae-prone..
Under the revised LORS, by releasing throughout the year, the Corps could reduce summer discharges of warmer, more nutrient-laden runoff, correspondingly reducing the potential for blooms to spawn.
U.S. Sugar and other agricultural interests sued the Corps for releasing “unprecedented volumes of water” that their operations need during the state’s relatively dry winters and springs.
Cities such as West Palm Beach maintain the releases endanger their water supplies in the advent of extended dry spans.
The suit remains unresolved with a federal district judge instructing the Corps and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to study effects of lake water management and releases on blue green algae, red tide and natural habitats.
Nevertheless, DeSantis and U.S. Rep, Brian Mast, R-Stuart, called on the Biden administration to continue the dry season releases that were approved under the Trump administration.
“We were very happy with 2019 and 2020 in terms of how the lake was managed by the Army Corps of Engineers,” DeSantis said. “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,” said Mast, whose congressional district includes Lake Okeechobee and Atlantic coast communities devastated by 2018’s toxic green-blue algae outbreak. “The Corps needs to go back to using common sense. Lower the levels of that lake before they get into hurricane season. Give it more room.”