What our water conditions now mean for what could be in store later this rainy season.
Summer seems to be in full swing in south Florida. About a month into the rainy season and many of the water-quality markers we don’t like to see are already hogging the headlines, namely toxic blue-green algae and an elevated Lake Okeechobee.
With the lake at 14 feet entering the wet season—about a foot higher than the target level—there is a very real threat of higher-volume discharges later in the rainy season. The possibility of those discharges transporting toxic blue-green algae to the populated coasts also a reality.
It’s times like these when the importance of completing Everglades restoration is magnified.
With more robust infrastructure and better operations in place, there will be an immense increase in our capabilities to store, clean, and send more beneficial lake water south to the Everglades during the dry season, thereby reducing the likelihood of harmful coastal discharges during the wet season.
Because of recent progress and momentum on restoration efforts, we are in a better spot than we would have been 5 years ago, but it won’t be until other major restoration projects are fully online that we’ll see full-scale relief from these issues.
With critical projects like the EAA Reservoir complete, we’d be a lot less worried about discharges right now and a lot more focused on enjoying these waters we love.
That’s why we have to keep up the momentum on these projects and expedite them wherever possible.
The situation: toxic blue-green algae blooming
For weeks, county departments of health have been issuing health alerts for the presence of toxic blue-green algae in freshwater bodies throughout the state. Lake Okeechobee and the upper reaches of the Caloosahatchee River in particular have been experiencing persistent blooms.
NOAA satellite imagery tools (updated daily) have consistently noted bloom potential on a majority of the lake, and recent flights over the lake have confirmed the thick, streaking, neon-green algae covering major portions of the 730-square-mile lake.
Blue-green algae, or Microsystis, is a type of harmful algal bloom (HAB) that forms in freshwater systems and creates human health concerns. It can produce Microcystin—a potent liver toxin and possible human carcinogen.
There are a lot of factors that contribute to blue-green algae growth, like temperature, light, and nutrient availability.
Unfortunately, Lake Okeechobee has severe nutrient pollution issues, so there is always an excess of nutrients—like Nitrogen and Phosphorus—for the algae to fuel up on, often leading to blooms like the ones we’re seeing now.
Even though nutrient inputs into the lake are somewhat reduced today compared to 50 years ago, there are still decades of legacy nutrient pollution from a century of mismanagement and high nutrient loadings.
Much of that nutrient content is usually semi-contained within the now-muck bottom of the lake, but Hurricanes Ian and Nicole created major wind and wave events on the lake that stirred up that bottom and redistributed those nutrients throughout the water column where they were made more available for the algae.
After the storms last fall, there was a general consensus that algae blooms on the lake would be significant this summer as temperatures ramped up. Now we’re seeing those predictions take shape.
Lake Okeechobee higher than normal
Those hurricanes also dropped a record amount of rainfall across the Lake Okeechobee watershed and south Florida late last year, setting the stage for a seriously elevated lake.
Then, without adequate infrastructure in place to send water south to the Everglades during the dry season, water managers were unable to reduce lake levels to meet target zones heading into the wet season.
Compound that with Mother Nature’s enthusiastic start to the rainy season, and the lake is sitting high at 14 feet—more than a foot higher than it was this time of year last year.
Enter the risk of high-volume coastal discharges and the threat of transferring toxic blue-green algae downstream.
Now, whatever happens going forward this year is largely a matter of Mother Nature. Operating under the constraints of the current water management system, there’s little that can be done at this point to avoid whatever’s in store for this season—rainfall will get the last word on that.
Army Corps wet-season strategy
In a recent media call, the Army Corps of Engineers, who manages lake levels, laid out their wet-season strategy.
They were transparent about the lake being high and noted the possibility of higher releases for later in the season, emphasizing that those release decisions would be dictated by the timing, location, and intensity of rainfall over the system.
As of June 10th, the Corps resumed low-level releases to the Caloosahatchee River to accompany local basin runoff into the river and target total flows of 2,000 cfs (within the optimum flow envelope of 750–2,100 cfs). There continue to be no lake releases into the St. Lucie, the target for the remainder of the season.
They also intend to continue maximizing flows south as much as possible to reduce lake levels.
But ultimately, the potential for high-volume discharges to both coasts hinges on what the weather will bring.
Army Corps Commander, Col. James Booth, did reiterate an increased flexibility to hold releases until higher levels, though, citing new capacities of the recently reinforced Herbert Hoover Dike.
In past years, like in 2018, high-volume discharges were required earlier in the season at lower lake levels due to structural concerns with the dike that surrounds the lake.
Now, after a multi-billion-dollar fortification of the dike wrapped up earlier this year, the lake can safely hold water to higher levels before high-volume releases are required.
That offers some relief, but it’s really more of a duct-tape fix than a long-term solution, because keeping the lake high is not beneficial for the ecology of the lake, which can perpetuate the ongoing algae issue.
That’s why the ultimate answer is Everglades restoration.
Everglades restoration is the comprehensive solution
By managing the system closer to the way it functioned in its natural state, we can achieve improved water quality for the entire south-Florida system—for the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades and Florida Bay.
That means storing, cleaning, and sending more water from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades during the dry, winter months to reduce lake levels heading into the rainy, summer months. That’s how things worked before man, and that’s the only thing that will save America’s iconic Everglades, which now only receives about a third of the freshwater flows it once did.
Thankfully, there’s a plan in place to do that. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan is a suite of 68 infrastructure projects designed to improve those flows south and reduce damaging discharges to the coasts.
However, Everglades restoration is a massive undertaking, and its completion is still years down the road. That’s why we have to stay persistent and committed to this effort.
We have to keep up the momentum and get these projects to the finish line as quickly as possible so that we’re no longer beholden to the weather, hoping and praying for the summer rains to stay quiet.