NewsProtecting Paradise


Environmentalists warn of impacts ahead of Lake Okeechobee discharges

Fear of algae blooms, impacts on oyster reefs and seagrass grows
Lake Okeechobee, Sept. 26, 2022
Posted at 3:50 PM, Feb 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-15 16:47:48-05

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — Residents along Florida's east coast are bracing for the floodgates, which hold back water from Lake Okeechobee, to open Saturday.

The Army Corps of Engineers is worried about the current height of the lake, which is 16.3 feet, ahead of the rainy season.

Its solution is to start releasing gargantuan volumes of water through a canal network. Environmentalists worry it's a giant mess that will impact the long-battered coastal marine habitats.

Protecting Paradise

What would discharges mean for Martin County?

Joel Lopez
12:17 AM, Feb 14, 2024

WPTV spoke with Mark Perry, the executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam this week.

"I'm really upset," Perry said. "They should have been releasing water south prior to this back in October of last year when the lake got over 16 feet."

The water will flow — perhaps billions of gallons each day — both east and west. The potential amounts will be more than one billion gallons a day toward the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon.

Perry said the Lake Worth Lagoon, Perry could expect more than 300 million gallons a day. There is no firm timetable on how long the flows might last.

Each day, Perry said, will be another day of water filled with phosphorous and nitrogen.

Mark Perry discusses the impacts the freshwater releases can have on the estuaries and rivers on the east coast of Florida.
Mark Perry discusses the impacts the freshwater releases can have on the estuaries and rivers on the east coast of Florida.

"They can't go for a long duration at these discharges," Perry argued. "They are going to wipe out these habitats such as oyster reefs, and seagrass beds, which hundreds and hundreds of fish and shellfish as well as manatees depend on."

Algae blooms — now or later — could be another nasty result, environmentalists worry.

"We need to get water out of the lake for the health of the lake and the health of everybody around the lake," Perry said. "We understand we have to get water out, but they should be putting it south to the Everglades that needs it."

It is a never-ending debate on balancing safety for communities around Lake Okeechobee, and environmental and economic consequences for coastal and farming communities, all while securing a future for the parched Everglades.

The Army Corps of Engineers is said to prefer the big lake's water level at about 13 feet at the start of storm season. If that remains the goal, environmentalists said it could mean water releases that go on for months.

The Army Corps is scheduled to hold a media briefing regarding the discharges on Friday.