Scientist says Lake Okeechobee water discharges could be "catastrophic"

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Anxiety is rising along the fragile network of waterways connected, in one way or the other, to Lake Okeechobee.

Environmentalists looking on Thursday estimated more than four billion gallons of water each day are now pouring out of the big lake,rushing through the Saint Lucie Lock in Martin County.

Dr. Tom Van Lent, an Everglades Foundation scientist, said to me, "Disaster is not too strong of a word. It is catastrophic for the health of this river, this estuary."

Lake Okeechobee is swollen by all of our recent rains. Its old, fragile, leaking levee leaves the Army Corp of Engineers no choice but to open the drain, so to speak. That lake water, much of it accumulated from runoff out of the Kissimmee Basin, is filled with phosphorous and nitrogen from agricultural and urban areas. All of that is being dumped into the St. Lucie Estuary.

Van Lent said, "This pollution could trigger large algae blooms. This river (St. Lucie River) could be a fetid, stinking mess in no time at all."

The deluge of polluted freshwater is also harming oyster beds and other marine life. And it also is helping to trigger high bacteria hazard warnings for swimmers along the estuary and Indian River Lagoon.

Cody Moral lives in Jensen Beach. He said, "Being fishermen, we see our life going down the drain. We see dead snook, dead snapper, a lot of dead animals floating everywhere."

Long term relief rest with Everglades restoration--including the multi-billion dollar Central Everglades Planning Project, or CEPP. It aims to create a system in which a broad sheet of clean water can someday flow from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades, as nature intended, thus sparing the estuary much of the runoff.

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said, "What CEPP does is provide that additional water that is needed in the central system and into Everglades National Park, and it will help the situation we have here today."

There is hope the current water discharges will fast track those restoration plans. Until then a big chunk of the Treasure Coast economy and environment is awash in a rising tide.

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