Our water is clear! What that means to our local businesses cannot be overstated. After the financial hit of last summer, which followed several years of hit and miss water quality thanks to Lake Okeechobee water releases, local businesses are understandably skeptical. We’ve been here before. We know that our water and our businesses flourish or suffer at the whims of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and their decisions to open those gates that release Lake O water to the Caloosahatchee River, water that often fouls our bay and Gulf.
For years we’ve discussed the damage that the flush of pollution-filled water does to our estuaries and our economy. We’ve been told repeatedly that there is nothing that can be done. The Army Corps and SFWMD are duty bound to follow the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS). LORS, we were told repeatedly, was designed to protect the communities around the lake from a possible dike breach if the water got too high. LORS didn’t much care about the health or economy of the estuary and the people who lived on the coasts.
And then in 2018, the damage from those releases, combined with blooms of Blue Green Algae on the lake and river, plus Red Tide in the Gulf of Mexico, was so terrible that the cry for help on the coasts reached critical political mass and was heard. The decision makers started paying attention.
Suddenly they found flexibility in LORS. This summer, they handled the level of Lake O differently. They drew it down before the summer rainy season, so the lake had space to hold runoff from heavy rain events and the massive releases were not necessary. Eureka!
As a result, our coastal water has remained clear. Our fish are coming back. Our businesses are recovering. Visitors can now plan on clear water during their summer visit.
This new management of the lake was deemed temporary. Don’t get used to it, they said. It was just for this summer to allow the lakebed grasses to recover.
Then something amazing happened. The Corps blinked. The world tilted.
This week, the Army Corps announced plans to change the way it handles Lake O releases to protect coastal communities from Harmful Algae Blooms and their health threats. These changes will allow the corps to release more water when there are no algae blooms and less when there are. They’ll be able to manage the lake in future summers the way they’ve done it this summer.
How’s it feel to win a round? None of us will be convinced entirely until we’ve lived through several consecutive summers of clear water, but this marks a major turning point. It doesn’t solve all of our water problems, but it’s a start.
Our elected officials still need to know how important clean water is to our health and economy. We need to comment on the Army Corps “deviation” before August 21 so they know we support this change. Email Melissa.firstname.lastname@example.org and say you support the Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact on proposed LORS changes.