October 10th, 2020
East-facing view of the S77/Moore Haven Lock & Dam showing release of Lake Okeechobee water into the Caloosahatchee River.
As Florida’s economy begins to rebound from the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors will soon be returning to enjoy our mild winter weather, pristine blue waters, and superb boating & fishing. However, with the initiation of polluted Lake Okeechobee discharges last week, visitors may be confronted with a less appealing kaleidoscope of color and foul-smelling water on Florida’s east and west coasts.
For the third time in just five years, Lake Okeechobee levels have risen to the point where discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers are essential to protecting the Herbert Hoover Dike and the communities that reside around the lake. This is partly a result of summer rainfall across the state that leads to a rapid rise in lake levels. However, it is also a result of water management decision-making by the U.S. Amy Corps of Engineers to keep the lake too high in the dry season while depriving the Everglades of the water it needs.
Nearly $1 billion of restoration infrastructure has been built around Everglades National Park, including more than 3 miles of bridges on Tamiami Trail, to allow more water from the lake to flow south. This new infrastructure can be used now to benefit the environment and protect our coastal communities if it is combined with new operating rules for Lake Okeechobee. These new rules can ensure more water is delivered south during the late fall and early winter. Doing so will improve conditions across the Everglades and protect the water supply for millions all while helping to draw down Lake Okeechobee before the start of the summer rainy season.
With more room in the lake, the risk of summer discharges to the estuaries goes down. This should be viewed as a “win-win” approach that maximizes use of new infrastructure to improve conditions now, even as more restoration projects are built in the years to come.
Following lake discharges and toxic algae blooms of 2018, the Corps did exactly this by releasing more water south earlier in the 2019 dry season to lower Lake Okeechobee ahead of the summer of 2019. As a result, there were no discharges in 2019.
Unfortunately, in 2020, the Corps reverted to business as usual for Lake Okeechobee, sending almost no water south in the dry season, despite numerous wildfires burning across the Everglades and water supplies to major urban areas being rationed. Today, the coastal communities, Everglades, and Florida Bay are living with the consequences of business as usual.
Florida continues to find itself careening from droughts to damaging discharges, but this erratic see-saw is avoidable if we use the new infrastructure we’ve built so far and if we manage Lake Okeechobee in a smarter, fairer, and safer way.
The South Florida Water Management District is currently working with the Corps to minimize these discharges. Stay up-to-date HERE.