| Special to The News-Press
For the fourth time in the last five years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided to flush billions of gallons of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.
If history is any guide, what happens next will be the destruction of critical fish habitat and the potential emergence of toxic algae blooms that have repeatedly forced beach closures and fishing restrictions on both our coasts, crushing tourism, and devastating local economies.
For decades, Florida has wrestled with this conundrum. To avoid failure of an aging dike around Lake Okeechobee, vast quantities of freshwater are dumped to our coasts while, to the south, a parched Everglades and hypersaline Florida Bay wither. Water that is needed year-round to replenish the drinking water supply for millions of Floridians is instead flushed to sea causing both ecological and economic harm in the process.
Scientists and policymakers alike know that the long-term solution to these problems is to build infrastructure to re-direct this flow south, and more than $1 billion of construction has already been completed in the southern Everglades, including more than 3 miles of bridges on Tamiami Trail.
Governor DeSantis’ $2.5 billion funding commitment and support for sending water south is helping to advance key water storage projects like the Everglades reservoir. This water infrastructure will ultimately restore (as near as possible) the natural southerly flow of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades and, from there, to Florida Bay.
Even while construction of these massive Everglades restoration projects is still underway, there is still much we can do to avoid these algae-causing discharges.
Existing infrastructure can be utilized immediately to protect our coastal communities and give relief to the Everglades and Florida Bay below.
The Army Corps of Engineers is now in the process of revising the operating rules for Lake Okeechobee. The new rules should be written to permit more water to be released to the south during the late fall and early winter – the dry season, when rainfall is at its lowest and the waterless Everglades is most in need.
Besides replenishing the often-scorched Everglades, this new dry season flow of fresh water will also revive the Biscayne Aquifer, the primary water supply for more than 5 million along Florida’s lower east coast. Further to the south, the runoff will help resuscitate Florida Bay, which suffers nearly every year from a lack of freshwater.
Meanwhile, by reducing the volume of water in the Lake during the dry season, the risk of flooding is lessened when the rains do come, making these toxic discharges less likely.
After the devastating toxic algae blooms of 2018, the Army Corps of Engineers took the step of releasing more water to the south during the 2019 dry season. As a result, Lake Okeechobee water levels were reduced below 11 feet ahead of the rainy season, the flooding risk was reduced and there was no need for algae-causing discharges in 2019.
Sadly, in 2020, the Corps reverted to business as usual, sending almost no water south in the dry season, leading to wildfires in the Everglades and a severe water shortage in south Florida that led to rationing in major metropolitan areas. Now, wet season rains have forced a new round of discharges, foreshadowing outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae in the months ahead.
By doing nothing, Florida will continue to careen from seasons of deadly drought to seasons of toxic blue-green algae.
We can avoid this erratic seesaw by using the infrastructure we’ve already built and sending water south during the dry season instead of hoarding it: let’s manage Lake Okeechobee in a smarter, fairer, and safer way that benefits all of us.
Eric Eikenberg is CEO of The Everglades Foundation.