This Is What Reducing Risks Looks Like

There’s a couple things that Floridians have learned to count on each and every summer. A betting man could safely put his money on excessive heat and some amount of sure rain. Lately, unfortunate odds have made toxic algae outbreaks a strong third on the list of likely’s.

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June 1st signaled the start of another hurricane season, marking the time of year when residents along the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie River estuaries instinctively brace themselves--following the weather closely, and watching carefully for the first signs of cyanobacteria blooms swept in with Lake Okeechobee releases.

Flashback to this time last year: By the first week of June, discharges were already in full swing. More than two weeks of near-daily rains in May prompted a quick rise in already-high lake levels, swelling more than 12 inches in just 18 days and topping out over 14 feet. An eruption of algae, visibly green from the air, and reported at more than a square mile wide, sat festering in the lake. In just a few short weeks time, it would grow to cover nearly half of the lake’s 730-square-mile surface and would be confirmed, without fanfare, as testing positive for microcystin by Florida DEP.  What came next was a toxic summer so vivid, it doesn’t need revisiting. A year later, some coastal businesses are still reeling from the combined effects of toxic algae and red tide and across the state, millions who touched and breathed in toxins are still waiting to see the health impact of their exposure.

So what’s different this year? For starters, more than three feet of additional storage remains available on Lake Okeechobee to accommodate summer rain if, or more likely when, it does come. Although recent satellite images confirm evidence of a fast-growing bloom on the lake, new management strategies--championed by Congressman Brian Mast and implemented by the Army Corps--to lower the lake before the rainy season are working. The current water level hovers at 10.89 feet with an expectation from the Corps that it will continue to drop thanks to evaporation. At least for now, the toxic bloom isn’t headed to our beaches.

There’s no question that holding lake levels too high before the rainy season last year resulted in the release of 392 billion gallons of toxic discharge into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee. While we can’t predict rain with any certainty, and the looming prospect of a long hurricane season ahead remains an indeterminable threat, the present situation leaves us more capable to handle an influx of water without unleashing known health hazards on coastal communities.

It’s a world-changing win for the people who suffered so much last year that algae isn’t already piled up on top of a swollen lake, straining against the locks. Especially given the recent USGS study that pointed to the stunningly simple reason why a bloom that tests with relatively low levels of toxins in the lake suddenly produces an explosion of toxins in our estuaries: salt. (The toxic algae live in freshwater, and start to die—releasing their cyanotoxins—when they touch brackish water.)

So far this year, every stakeholder is getting what they need from our water management system—including sugar growers and municipalities that rely on lakewater. But rain could be around the next corner, and without permanent operational changes to the management of Lake Okeechobee that prioritize people—protecting us from poisoning and flooding—the next Toxic Summer could be right on its heels.

That doesn’t need to happen. We’re learning that now.

The elusive system that works for everyone? Florida's extreme climate means we need more storage and treatment. When Big Sugar successfully lobbied to shrink the EAA Reservoir to its current size, they guaranteed the system would remain too small, requiring tough choices that picked winners and losers when we have too much rain or drought. That's most years.

Now, they are lobbying against Brian Mast's and Ron Desantis' effort to lower Lake Okeechobee, to guarantee they are still winners, even in the event of a drought. They are the reason we don't have a system that works for everyone--and they want to make sure that the estuaries continue to shoulder nearly all the weather risk--risk that results in health, economy and environmental damage more years than not. Glades residents also bear a greater risk of a deadly dike breach--but hey, Big Sugar has a right to two years of stockpiled irrigation water, right? Actually, no they don't.

We’re on the brink of a new era in Lake Okeechobee management. Paired with adequate storage and treatment capacity, and stopping pollution at the source, annual toxic outbreak watch could finally become a distant memory.


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