Florida officials urging Army Corps to change Lake Okeechobee management plan to avoid algae blooms

Governor spoke during news conference in Hobe Sound

Lake Okeechobee. Image provided by Jacksonville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. – The Florida governor urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change its game plan in managing discharges from Lake Okeechobee, shifting the blame for increasing algae blooms to the federal service in charge of handling discharges from Florida’s largest lake.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein and officials with the South Florida Water Management District held a news conference in Hobe Sound at Johnathan Dickinson State Park Monday to talk about the management of the lake and harmful algae blooms.

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Environmental groups have been calling on DeSantis to declare an emergency over algae blooms caused by Lake Okeechobee water runoff.

DeSantis said he took a helicopter tour around the lake Monday to see the growing algae blooms. According to the governor, 2019 and 2020 didn’t see the same issues with toxic algae from the lake because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had taken a different approach to managing the discharges from the lake.

The sludge-like green algae blooms, which can cause harmful health impacts for wildlife and those who live in communities connected to the runoff, appear to be an increasing problem in recent months.

On May 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the Lake Okeechobee blue-green algae bloom had expanded to an estimated 300 square miles, according to satellite imagery.

“This summer we are seeing evidence of blooms in and around the lake,” DeSantis said. “And because of these high levels, you know, we are assuming that the Corps is going to be discharging some of this water with a lot of algae content.”

The governor says the 2019-2020 approach to managing the lake was more effective, essentially asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a new manual when it comes to managing the lake.

“We want that to be done in a way that is going to put a premium on reducing or eliminating harmful discharges during the wet season during the summer season, so we are urging the Army Corps to allow for the type of flexibility that really (was) done in 2019 and 2020 in the low sum to avoid harmful discharges in our estuaries and to improve lake management during the dry season,” DeSantis said.

South Florida Water Management District Chair Chauncey Goss echoed the governor’s sentiments.

“There are two major things that need to be done both to improve the health of the lake and reduce damage and discharge, once and for all,” Goss said. “First, those projects have to be built around the lake because they’re storage projects we’re working on. Second, the Corps must improve how the lake is managed.”

In late April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began increasing Lake Okeechobee releases at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam from 1,000 cubic feet per second to 2,000 cfs.

“We are very concerned about the level of the lake as we near the beginning of the rainy season, and the long-range weather forecasts are painting a potentially rainy seasonal outlook,” Col. Andrew Kelly, Jacksonville District Commander, said in a news release “While we need to get water out of the lake to prepare for the upcoming tropical weather season, May is one of the most challenging times to predict and may require us to adjust operations regularly as conditions change.”

Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said the Corps should direct the discharges south during the dry season.

“The foundation, others call on the colonel to pick a plan that delivers water to the south during the dry season,” Eikenberg said. “During the dry months, let’s send water south, as the governor has said countless times, sand, water south to the Keys to the Florida Bay.”

Then, in the wet season, “we have the ability to raise the lake and avoid these harmful discharges,” Eikenberg said.

A letter sent to DeSantis on May 8 from the Calusa Waterkeeper asked the governor to declare a state emergency order waiving any restrictions on state agencies to work together to store or move water away from coastal areas previously impacted by the toxic blue-green algae.

Friends of the Everglades was among 14 groups that requested DeSantis issue an emergency order.

The governor did not mention considering a state of emergency during the news conference Monday.