Stuart officials sound the alarm as high Lake Okeechobee level threatens discharges

Article Courtesy of  The Treasure Coast Newspapers

By Max Chesnes

Published March 3, 2021


STUART — City officials are sounding the alarm to state water managers, claiming they're worried Lake Okeechobee's higher-than-normal elevation could prompt further damaging releases into the fragile St. Lucie River estuary.

Currently standing at 15 feet, 3 inches, Lake Okeechobee's level is over 2.6 feet higher than this time last year, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Tropical Storm Eta's November rainfall helped fill the lake to this above-average height.

Now, as the threat of reopening the floodgates looms, city officials are urging the South Florida Water Management District to send excess lake water south into the thirsty Everglades and through state-managed stormwater treatment areas, or marshes.

"The critical importance of conveying this volume of lake water south before the wet season cannot be overstated," the city commission wrote in a letter to the SFWMD board Monday.

City commissioners claim the state's marshes south of the lake are disproportionately treating local runoff and aren't doing enough to handle the excess lake water, according to the letter.

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Between May 1 and Feb. 25, just over 6% of marsh-treated water was released south from Lake Okeechobee, and the remainder was local basin runoff, according to data presented Thursday to the Rivers Coalition by Drew Bartlett, SFWMD executive director.

"We are sending water south. It's not a lot right now," Bartlett told the coalition, a consortium of over 70 businesses, homeowners associations, nonprofit agencies and fishing clubs with a mission is to end Lake O discharges into the river.

The reason for the current low volume of lake water, Bartlett said, is because the marshes are still recovering after incoming water was "cranked up" late last year, just before Tropical Storm Eta dumped up to 3 to 4 inches of water in some places.

"When we pushed all that water into the (marshes), it really challenged them," Bartlett said.

He likened it to cleaning a fish tank: When you pour more water into the top of the tank, the plants at the bottom are stirred up and eventually float to the top.

"When we end up pushing a lot of water through the (storm water treatment areas), that's what happens: It gets full, and those plants start to float and they need to be attached."

One of the marshes, dubbed "1 West", is currently unavailable as the vegetation continues to recover, Bartlett told the coalition. It likely won't be repaired until the start of the wet season.

If more water heads over already damaged marshes, it can render the stormwater treatment areas unusable for years, Bartlett said.

"When we're at a lake stage like we have right now, we are always looking for those opportunities to use these (treatment areas)," Bartlett told the coalition. "But we have to make sure they're functional in the other parts of the year as well."

Still, this ratio of lake water heading south "remains neither equitable nor adequate," city officials wrote Monday. "Unfortunately, the consequence of this unanticipated outcome has been felt greatly in the coastal estuaries, Florida Bay, and the Everglades."

Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution Feb. 22 to pave the way for sending the letter, effectively etching their concerns over a high Lake O level on the official record.

The Corps Thursday indicated it will decide soon whether to discharge excess water to the St. Lucie River.

The longer Lake O stays at a stalled level, "the more likely it is" that discharges will be coming, said the Corps' Florida Commander, Col. Andrew Kelly. He hinted a more definitive plan would be outlined in two weeks.

Stuart officials urged the Corps to work alongside the district to ensure more water is sent south, reducing the ever-growing chances that freshwater will be discharged into the fragile river before the rainy season.

"These sufferings have been particularly severe to our natural environment and our unique and diverse aquatic habitat," officials wrote in the letter.

"So long as the EAA is the primary and near-exclusive beneficiary of this infrastructure, lake water will continue to be discharged to our community and at the expense of our economy and natural environment," the commission wrote.