El Nino conditions have brought Florida one of its rainiest winters in decades. Now, that rain is bringing trouble: high water in south Florida's Lake Okeechobee is threatening the earthen levees that protect nearby communities from flooding. In response, managers have decided to discharge the lake's waters outward into the state's coastal waters. But that move is creating even more trouble, of various kinds — environmental, economic, and political.
Water releases began in February, creating immediate alarm. The Naples Daily News reported the story on February 10 (see "Lake Okeechobee water releases raise concern," by Maryann Batlle). "After a January of historic rainfalls, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would release water from Lake Okeechobee to protect South Florida from flooding," the paper reported. But locals were dismayed. Fishing-boat Captain Frank Ventimiglia was outraged, the paper reported, after a day in which his charter customers caught no fish — but did spot a dead dolphin. "Aside from being ugly to look at, the released water is killing fish and ruining the ecosystem off Lee County's coast, he said," the paper reported. "Lake Okeechobee water releases are impacting businesses," was local station WPTV's headline on February 26 (see video).
Realtors held a public protest "chanting and holding signs against the Lake Okeechobee water releases" on February 19, local TV Station WINK reported (see: "Realtors stand along Summerlin Rd. in protest of ‘Lake O’ water releases"). "The realtors with Right Choice Realty are fed up with the brown water lining the Southwest Florida coast, and say people are backing out of deals because of the murky water in the Gulf of Mexico," the station reported. Last year, Florida Realtors released a four-year analysis they said showed that when local rivers are polluted with lakewater releases, property values in the area suffer — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, local station WPTV reported in 2015 (see: "Florida Realtors study reveals impact of Lake Okeechobee releases on property values," by Meghan McRoberts).
Florida's lifeblood tourism industry is also at stake: "In 2013, the last time a significant water discharge occurred in southern Florida, locals dubbed the season the 'lost summer,' due to the downturn in tourism and beach-going as a result of the polluted coastal water," reported the website ClimateProgress (see: "Florida Officials Drain Lake Full Of ‘Toilet’ Water To Coast," by Bryan Dewan).
This time around, six local mayors held a public meeting to raise awareness of the problem, the News-Press reported (see: "Mayors seek action on Lake O water release," by Bill Smith). "The mayors acknowledged that after a month in which unprecedented rain fell, there was a danger of catastrophic flooding, leading to the decision to back-pump and send the water toward the Gulf of Mexico," the News-Press reported. "...If their constituents are going to share the pain, though, the mayors want more information about why decisions are made to throw the switches that move millions of gallons of dirty water crashing toward the carefully preserved water resources ofSouthwest Florida communities that depend on those resources for their tourism-driven economies."
Florida Senator Bill Nelson was less diplomatic, local station WPEC reported (see: "Senator Bill Nelson calls Lake Okeechobee water releases 'idiotic'," by Jana Eschbach). "You get too much water north of Tamiami Trail and then all the deer population is drowning and you've got starvation of water just to the south in Everglades National Park," the Senator said after touring the area by helicopter.
By early March, the Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake water, was dialing back its discharges. "The gush of harmful Lake Okeechobee water flowing into the fragile St. Luice estuary will be cut in half, beginning Friday following a respite from abnormally-high rainfall this winter," reported the Palm Beach Post (see: "Harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges cut in half," by Kimberly Miller). "But there will still be 1.1 billion gallons of lake water released per day into the St. Lucie. The Caloosahatchee estuary, which flows west from the lake, will still get 2.5 billion gallons per day."
"Sending lake water west into the Caloosahatchee and east into the St. Lucie means inundating marine life that thrives in high-salinity brackish waters with fresh water. That alone can cause major damage, including killing oyster beds and sea grasses," the Post noted. But water managers told the paper that some of the media's coverage of the problem was unrealistically alarmist. From the Post report: "'The Lake Okeechobee water is not toxic, it’s not killing people. If you eat fish out of the lake, you’re not going to glow,' said Albrey Arrington, a member of the Water Resources Advisory Committee of the South Florida Water Management District, which met Thursday. 'It’s definitely technically causing problems, but it’s not toxic in the way people are connoting it is.'"