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Army Corps of Engineers won't release Lake Okeechobee water this week

Releases still possible before end of hurricane season
Posted at 5:45 PM, Sep 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-24 17:53:16-04

STUART, Fla. — The Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday that it will not be releasing water from Lake Okeechobee this week into the St. Lucie Estuary, despite high lake levels.

It is a relief to people on the Treasure Coast who feared releases could have started as soon as this weekend.

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Col. Andrew Kelly, Commander and District Engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Jacksonville District, said the Army Corps and South Florida Water Management District were able to find more room south of Lake Okeechobee to store and move water for now.

Kelly stressed that conditions change daily, and with the lake level at nearly 15.3 feet, releases are still very likely before the end of the hurricane season.

"We are balancing on the razor's edge right now," said Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades.

Eve Samples
Eve Samples, the executive director of Friends of the Everglades, said she was encouraged to see the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee receiving attention in Washington, D.C.

The Army Corps announcement came on the same day that the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and Water Management in Florida.

The hearing was held as lawmakers are considering the Water Resources Development Act.

U.S Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., wants to pass legislation in the Act that would ban the Army Corps of Engineers from sending Lake Okeechobee releases to the coastal estuaries when toxic algae blooms are present.

"It's really good to see a spotlight on this issue in our nation's capital at a time when it's so critical to protect people from harmful algal blooms," Samples said.

She submitted congressional testimony in advance of the hearing, stating she wants the Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize human health when considering how to manage Lake Okeechobee water in the future.

"Secondly, we want to make sure the EAA reservoir, a long-anticipated $1.6 billion project south of the lake, is large enough and has enough cleansing capacity to actually work and be effective for the estuaries to reduce discharges, and just as important, to send enough water south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay," Samples said.

Five witnesses appeared before the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

One big take away from the hearing, according to Samples and a spokesperson from Mast's office, was how the witnesses responded to a question asking if they were happy with the "status quo" of lake management.

Representatives of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, South Florida Water Management District, a fishing guide, and Everglades advocate agreed the "status quo" is not working.

"The only person who said yes was the representative of big agriculture," Samples said. "I think that tells you how the system is broken when only one of the major stakeholders thinks Lake Okeechobee operations are working," Samples continued.

"The hearing exposed the hypocrisy of the for-profit corporations that are fighting to stop Everglades restoration, despite a taxpayer investment of more than $5 billion. It is a critical building block for future legislation to stop discharges that would move through the T&I committee that these positions are put on the record," said Kyle VonEnde, communications director for Mast.

The Army Corps of Engineers also announced Thursday that it received approval for harmful algal bloom deviation, allowing it to hold water back in the lake when there are algal blooms present.