Maximum Lake Okeechobee releases begin

Posted at 11:39 PM, Feb 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-05 09:59:50-05

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. -- The Army Corps of Engineers will begin releasing the maximum amount of water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie Estuary Friday morning.

Officials with the Army Corps say water is coming into the lake three times faster than they've been able to release it.

The current lake level exceeds 16 feet and could put the dike at risk.

The lake level, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, has risen more than a foot in the last 30 days due to back pumping from agricultural areas to the south, and heavy rainfall from El Nino related weather.

Director at Florida Oceanographic, Mark Perry, says the water is likely packed with pollutants from the water being back pumped into the lake from those agricultural areas.

"It's really outrageous. I'm just totally outraged," Perry said.

He says decision makers with the Army Corps knew we were in for a rainy dry season months ago.

The Army Corps will be aiming to release 7600 cfs per day, which equals about 4.9 billion gallons, or 7400 olympic sized swimming pools.

"In another week, we will see major impacts to the estuary," Perry said.

He says the estuary is already inundated with fresh water, to the point where there is zero salinity in some areas. More fresh water can quickly kill sea grass and oyster beds, essential to the health of the river.

He says toxic blue green algae, within a week, could also begin to form in Lake Okeechobee.

The last time this maximum amount of water was released from Lake Okeechobee was in 2013. The last time the lake level was this high was in 2005, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Local businesses are keeping an eye on the water conditions to see if the releases have the same impact, or worse, that they did in 2013. That was when toxic conditions crushed the local economy and tourism.

"I think it's going to happen again," said Sailor's Return General Manager, Michael Lamattina.

The riverfront restaurant stays busy, but Lamattina says the conditions in 2013 had his patrons feeling concerned.

"We did have guests that were kind of scared to eat the fish. Just worried, had a lot of questions. So, we were just very careful where we got the fish from."

His waterfront view wasn't as pristine as customers were accustomed to.

"Hopefully it doesn't get as bad as it got," Lamattina said.

The Army Corps of Engineers said the highest tide of the month is also set to happen next week. Officials say the discharges so decrease temporarily during that time.