Lake Okeechobee discharges to begin Friday following heavy rain

Lake levels up more than a foot since mid-May

STUART, Fla. - The U.S. Army Corps said they will be begin discharges from Lake Okeechobee on Friday following weeks of heavy rain in Florida.

The Army Corps said in written statement that discharges will occur into the St. Lucie Estuary to the east and Caloosahatchee Estuary to the southwest. 

May has been a particularly wet month for much of Florida, quickly raising water levels on Lake Okeechobee.

"Historic rain across the region since the middle of May has caused the lake to rise more than a foot," said Jacksonville District commander Col. Jason Kirk in a written statement.  "We have to be prepared for additional water that could result from a tropical system.  The lake today is above the stage when Irma struck in September, which eventually caused the water level to exceed 17 feet.  A similar storm could take the lake to higher levels."  

The lake stage is 14.08 feet, up 1.25 feet from its 2018 low, which occurred May 13.

"Forecasts indicate more rain is on the way in the coming week," said Kirk.  "Additionally, long-range predictions indicate increasing probabilities of above-average precipitation for the rest of the wet season. We must start aggressively managing the water level to create storage for additional rain in the coming wet season."

However, people living and working along the St. Lucie River are worried for the potential problems the discharges could bring downstream.

“I’m hoping they keep in mind that we also suffer when this happens," said Mary Radabaugh, the manager of Central Marine, which was considered ground zero of the algae crisis in 2016. "Our health as well as the estuary, our business, it affects a lot.”

Radabaugh said she's already noticed signs of declining water quality from the recent rainfall and runoff.

“Yesterday, we started seeing some of the foam that comes when we see the runoff from the land and when the locks open," she said. "It is definitely turned the waters black."

Robert Mark has noticed the same behind his house in Jensen Beach.

“This water is so nasty and it’s just from runoff now," he said. "They haven’t even opened the lake yet. The lake just makes it 10 times worse.”

He worries for the economy and people in the area if there's another round of algae.

"I'm afraid of losing the summer again," he said. "I’m afraid of my kids not wanting to come home from college because the water is so nasty."

Mark has lived along the St. Lucie River for 30 years, but he said if the water quality doesn't improve, he'd consider moving.

"It makes you want to leave this area for good and after 30 years, that’s a shame," he said.

Scientists say discharges alone don't cause toxic algae, but combined with strong sunshine, blooms are possible.

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