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Billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee water to be released daily toward the St. Lucie Estuary

Posted at 11:00 PM, May 31, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-01 12:16:17-04

The Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from Lake Okeechobee toward the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries in an effort to lower the lake level from all the recent rain fall.

To the east, releases will be at a rate of about 1.2 billion gallons of water a day, equal to around 1,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Thousands of people who live and work on the Treasure Coast feared the releases were only a matter of time.

They worry what they will do to the already suffering waterways.

Irene Gomes, who owns the Driftwood Motel in Jensen Beach, has a lot to lose if the water gets worse.

It’s already high in nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen from local runoff, and diluted with fresh water from recent rainfall and runoff.

Scientists said even before the Lake Okeechobee releases, that the risk for algae blooms was high. All that was needed was a little sunshine to help them flourish.

Lake Okeechobee releases can only increase the risk, according to Dr. Edie Widder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association.

“When that happens, we could get the kind of thing we had in 2016, so that’s the big concern,” Dr. Widder said.

In 2016, Gomes’ business took a big hit as a result of the toxic algae blooms that appeared on the river.

"I lost thousands and thousands of dollars in 2016,” Gomes said.

It takes time to recover from each loss. Sometimes, her customers don’t return.

"It affects not just that season, that week, those months. It’s affecting future income,” Gomes said.

She also watches the impact to the oyster beds outside her motel.

“Those releases damage our estuaries, it kills the oyster beds like we have out here, kills the seagrass.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has to prioritize keeping the lake level low, as many homes around the lake could be at risk of flooding if the dike around the lake cannot contain the higher water levels.

Everyone is hopeful more solutions will be in the works, and current projects will stay on track.

“I will be hurting financially if they can’t correct this situation.”

Releases began around 7 a.m. Friday.

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