Calls to limit discharges from Lake Okeechobee into St. Lucie Inlet
An ongoing battle on the Treasure Coast continues as residents fight for more protection for the St. Lucie Estuary.
It's been an ongoing debate for decades amid concern that discharge from Lake Okeechobee threatens the St. Lucie Inlet and River, its ecosystems and those that regulate it.
On Jan. 22, the Army Corps of Engineers started discharging water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River to lower the lake's water level from 16 feet to 12 feet by June in time for the rainy season. The idea is to prevent the lake from flooding in the event of a Hurricane.
"So we're not caught flat-footed for the next hurricane season that could be the result of then a lot of loss of lives or property, and that really is a goal of ours," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Hibner, with the South Atlantic District Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Hibner was one of many speakers who attended a Rivers Coalition meeting Thursday at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam in Martin County.
Martin County commissioners, Stuart city commissioners and state officials were among the many who came together with Martin County residents to fight for less discharge from the lake.
Mark Perry, executive director of Florida's Oceanographic Society, said discharge often brings along blue green algae and lowers the salinity of the water, which can bring other negative effects, and has before.
"We need the water to go south the way it was intended to go," Perry said. "This estuary gets a lot of other basin run off."
Residents of Martin County came out with signs and posters in protest of the discharge. One of those is Douglas Ashley, who said he has lived near the St. Lucie River for decades.
“We’ve always had a house here in Martin County," Ashley said. “It was crystal clear in the St. Lucie River and the St. Lucie Inlet, and over the course of the years its gotten black, and black and black. We're here to get people to understand what’s going on.”
The Army Corps of Engineers said they made significant progress in monitoring the discharges from Lake Okeechobee, and Perry, along with South Florida Water Management, agreed.
“The colonel [with the Army Corps of Engineers] actually stopped the discharges three times because he was uncomfortable with the algae blooms he saw. I can in full knowledge say that has never happened before," Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, with South Florida Water Management,, said.
Thurlow-Lippsich said currently, 500 CFS, or cubic feet per second of discharge is entering the St. Lucie Estuary, resulting in about 3,700 gallons of water.
In comparison, she said before the Corps started monitoring the discharge, that number was closer to 5,000 CFS, or 37,400 gallons of discharge, which is 3 1/2 times the level of CFS the state deems as safe, which is 1,400.
"Things have changed. Yes, we’re still getting the discharges, but now there’s a thoughtfulness to it," Thurlow-Lippsich said.
In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers said in December, the Corps won't discharge into the St. Lucie Inlet unless Lake Okeechobee's water level is above 16.8, which is expected to significantly reduce the amount of discharge.
The Corps is also working on building a reservoir to drain the water from the Lake south into the Everglades, to hydrate the area while also protecting the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
“Which would be incredibly beneficial to this system," Perry said. "Send that water south where it's needed so it keeps the lake in balance where it needs to be.”
Perry, Thurlow-Lippsich and Ashley all said they believe progress still needs to be made, starting with the water basin system.
“I think we have made progress. I don’t think its perfect progress, but it is progress," said Thurlow-Lippisch.
Thurlow-Lippisch also said the Army Corps is working on improving the transparency of the current algae conditions report so that the public is able to view the information sent to the Department of Environmental Protection.
She expects the informational website will launch in about a month.
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