As Lake O discharges to St. Lucie begin, here’s what we need to end them once and for all

The mood at the Rivers Coalition meeting in Stuart Jan. 19 was upbeat, almost triumphant. Gov. Ron DeSantis had issued an executive order earlier in the week, promising more money for Everglades restoration and the Indian River Lagoon. Lake Okeechobee was over 16 feet but there had been no harmful discharges into the St. Lucie River since April 2021.

And coupled with the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, a more equitable water management “playbook,” it seemed the worm was beginning to turn. Several speakers said: We’re gaining ground, making progress against toxic discharges and all the problems they cause!

Things are getting better!

The next day: Discharges.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Jan. 20 announced some 500 cubic feet of water per second — that’s an average of 323 million gallons per day — would begin flowing through the St. Lucie Lock & Dam, and could last through June.

This, in addition to the 2,000 cfs that’s been going west to the Caloosahatchee since November, as the Corps tries to lower the water level in the lake from the current 16.09 feet, about a foot higher than it was at this time last year.

Corps officials worry the lake level isn’t receding as quickly as they’d hoped. Long-term forecasts indicate the summer rains could begin sooner than previously anticipated.

And given both the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District expect major blue-green algae blooms on the lake this spring, Corps officials decided it’s better to have discharges sooner rather than later.

So much for all that progress.

The Corps is already discharging into the Caloosahatchee River, the Miami and New River canals and the Lake Worth Lagoon. Unlike the Caloosahatchee, which needs some lake water during the dry season to offset salinity levels, the St. Lucie never needs water from Lake O.

And it just goes to show you that however much money we’re spending, however high our hopes, real relief remains years away. In the meantime, we will remain at the mercy of both Mother Nature and a system, designed by man, to benefit the farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area at the expense of the estuaries.

Why can’t water be sent south into the 57,000-plus acres of STAs (stormwater treatment areas) the state owns south of Lake O? As VoteWater detailed in a “Deep Dive” last week, it’s because that water storage is spoken for, effectively reserved for runoff from the farm fields.

And while the 240,000-acre foot EAA reservoir and its attendant 6,500-acre STA could surely help, it will be years before the project is complete and its components online. And even then — if Florida can’t meet court-ordered water quality standards for water flowing south to the Everglades — those components may not function at full capacity.

So for now, we’re stuck in the same place we’ve always been — on the receiving end of harmful discharges.

Same as it ever was.

This isn’t to say we believe the Corps’ decision was wrong; if discharges now obviate the need for them later, when the lake is dealing with a full-on harmful algae bloom, let’s have them now.

But how about: Let’s not have them at all, ever again. What will it take to achieve that?

For even LOSOM, even the rehabilitated Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake O, even the EAA reservoir project, none of it promises NO discharges. So how do we get to NO discharges; how do we end this scourge once and for all?

The reality is, there’s only one way: We need more land for water storage south of the lake. It’s only when the system has the capacity to absorb excess lake water — and the northern estuaries are given the same consideration as the farm fields of the EAA — that we can make harmful discharges a thing of the past.

Our elected officials need to prioritize the acquisition of additional land. But it’s not on their radar. Nowhere in DeSantis’ executive order did he call for the state to buy more land. The Legislature, soon to be in session, has no proposals to do so.

The one thing we can do that would really help isn’t even being discussed.

We need to change that. And your support can help us turn up the heat — and move this key issue to the front burner.