An environmental nightmare is playing out about 35 miles from Lake Okeechobee, the source of a green-and-blue algae bloom that is plaguing South Florida.
At the lake, an aging dike system forces the Army Corps of Engineers to release controlled discharges through channel locks east and west from the lake to protect nearby towns from flooding, but those discharges, which carry pollutants from agricultural lands that flow into the lake from the north, pour into rivers and lagoons downstream, which eventually dump into the ocean.
When too much polluted discharge from Okeechobee hits areas downstream, such as the St. Lucie River estuary in Stuart, the blend of fresh and salt water creates giant phosphorescent plumes of algae, making the water unsafe for human and aquatic life alike and closing public beaches, the New York Times reports.
Gov. Rick Scott declared states of emergency last week in Martin, St. Lucie, Palm Beach and Lee counties.
The Corps of Engineers is dealing with a dike nearly 80 years old that has structural problems. It was designed at a time when environmental preservation was not an issue. Corps spokesman John Campbell told the Times that engineers also have to balance the concerns of environmentalists with the need to safeguard area residents. More than 8 million people are affected by the water system.
“We’re constantly having to balance the potential of an environmental impact from releasing water against the very real public safety hazard of containing the water and the hazard that poses by putting pressure on the dike itself,” Campbell told the newspaper. “The system is so constrained that everything that was low-hanging fruit has been done so far. We are left with few options or constraints to work with.”
With hurricane season yet to come, the Army Corps still has to carefully determine how to release and plug the dikes. It takes roughly a month to release six inches of water from the lake, Campbell said, so if significant rains fell, the dike could have “performance issues” and the Army Corps would have to take precautions to prevent a disaster that would bring “widespread damage and problems, especially if the water goes south, which is where the water wants to go, anyway.”
Residents along the coast say there is enough blame to go around at both the state and federal levels, with Big Agriculture playing a significant role.
“Everybody’s known about this problem for years — that there’s a big algae bloom, and now it’s worse than 2013,” Richard Day, 51, who has lived in Stuart since 1973 and works as an auto mechanic at a downtown garage, told the Times. “I’ve got friends who captain boats and they’re moving south to Jupiter in Palm Beach County. It’s just sad.”
Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, which is based in Stuart, said the state’s inability to close a deal to purchase thousands of acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee — to create a natural runoff from the lake into the Florida Everglades, where the diverse ecosystem could naturally filter toxins from the north — has been to blame for the problems that communities west and east of the lake, such as Stuart, are dealing with.
But the area south of the lake has been controlled by sugar farmers for decades. Environmentalists such as Perry say state lawmakers kowtow to agricultural lobbyists who fund their re-election campaigns.
“The flow used to go south to the Everglades, and now this is a man-made, criminal disaster,” Perry said. “They, as in the state and federal government, say they can’t send the water south, but they can. This is an absolute atrocity that they are allowed to continue this in the name of agriculture. This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”