The law is not protecting us from toxic blooms. We can change that.
- There is a human health crisis stemming from Lake Okeechobee discharges conducted by the U.S. Army Corps
- As recently as August 23, 2018, algae discharged into the St. Lucie River from Lake Okeechobee tested positive for microsystin at a level of 495.06 parts per billion, which is nearly 50 times more toxic than the level considered safe for human contact.
- Microsystin can cause nausea and vomiting if ingested.
- Drinking water containing microsystin can cause long-term liver disease.
- A recent study found that people living in areas with significant algae blooms are more likely to die from liver disease.
The authorized project purposes managing discharges from Lake Okeechobee currently include flood control, navigation, water supply, regional groundwater control and salinity control, enhancement of fish and wildlife, and recreation; however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stated that they currently have “an extremely limited ability to address water quality with system operational changes.”
These priorities have resulted in the lake being managed to the substantial detriment of the communities east and west of the lake, whose health and safety is routinely put at risk.
Prioritizing Public Health and Safety
The Stop Harmful Discharges Act (H.R. 6700) proposes to make public health and safety the primary consideration for the
management of the Central and Southern Florida Project. Public health and safety is defined as managing Lake Okeechobee and the Central and Southern Florida system to:
- Minimize the potential of toxic cyanobacteria blooms;
- Prevent discharges containing cyanobacteria or related toxins into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds and other areas where such cyanobacteria or related toxins will cause or exacerbate public health risks;
- Ensure the integrity and stability of the Herbert Hoover Dike;
- Maintain all provisions of applicable State and Federal water quality laws, policies and regulations; and
- Ensure necessary water volume and quality reaches the Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and Caloosahatchee Watershed to restore the natural habitat.
Under this definition, the health and safety of communities east and west of the lake will be given equal priority to the rest of Florida for the first time.
Modification of Operations
The bill also directs the Secretary of the Army to modify operations of current projects to ensure that public health and safety, as defined above, is the prime consideration. The Secretary shall develop a Master Operational Manual to ensure that the projects are managed to protect public health and safety.
The bill does not alter the water rights compact between the State of Florida and the Seminole Tribe, nor diminish access to water for the Miccosukee Tribe. The bill also will not impede the construction of CERP and CEPP projects. In fact, the bill explicitly prohibits changes to the schedule for completion of any CERP or CEPP projects, authorized before December 31, 2018, as a result of the legislation.
Human Health Crisis
Drinking, touching, and even breathing algae-borne toxins are known to cause skin rashes, eye irritation, nose and throat irritation and breathing difficulty, stomach and intestinal problems, and liver damage. Additionally researchers have linked these toxins to increased risks of liver failure, ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and multiple cancers. The human health impact of toxic blooms may not be fully known for years.
The Corps does not assess water quality or toxic bloom risk before discharging water to the Caloosahatchee or St. Lucie, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection tests samples only after blooms are reported. So people coming into contact with algae-borne toxins often find out only after they’ve been exposed. The Florida Department of Health publicly claimed that algae-borne toxins can’t be breathed in and pose no long-term health hazards--contradicting the US Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization, and virtually every scientist studying the issue. Our government is failing to protect us from a known health threat.
Increasing Nutrient Pollution
The nutrient overload in Lake Okeechobee that provides food for toxic blooms in the lake and out to both coasts during discharges is getting worse. Since 2010 the five-year average annual loads of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the lake have increased by almost 50%, exceeding targets by 200% to 600%. So much nutrient pollution is now stored in the lake that if inflows from now on were completely clean, the lake would still fuel toxic blooms for generations.
Impact of the Reservoir
We won’t know for years how much the EAA reservoir will reduce discharges of toxic bloom-fueling nutrients to our rivers and coasts. Designed to filter pollution and deliver clean freshwater to Florida Bay, the reservoir’s capacity to cut discharges depends on how much filtration is has and how much pollution it needs to remove. Independent scientists worry that the reservoir’s footprint is too small to filter the volume of lakewater in the plan, and as long as nutrient pollution in Lake Okeechobee gets worse, the volume that the reservoir can clean will drop.