The need to urgently implement freshwater storage projects in the Lake Okeechobee watershed is more evident than ever this month. The wet winter weather and lack of storage have compelled the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to begin large and environmentally-damaging releases from the Lake to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. These water releases are deemed necessary when high Lake levels threaten the integrity and safety of Hoover Dike.
Large releases of freshwater polluted with phosphorus and nitrogen likely will kill sea grasses and oysters, cause fish and wildlife evacuations, and possibly trigger harmful algae blooms.
Rainfall across the Okeechobee watershed in March totaled about eight inches, which is above average even for wet season months and more than twice the average for March. As of March 31, the Lake had risen to 14.6 feet, only about 2.5 feet from the highest level the Corps deems safe for the Hoover Dike. With the wet season just two months away and with the realization that a tropical storm can quickly raise the Lake as much as four feet (as Tropical Storm Fay did in 2008), the Corps has little choice but to lower water levels in the Lake over the next two months to the extent possible.
Until more water storage can be brought on line, Florida is trapped in a repetitive cycle that damages the Lake, watershed and estuary environments. The current environmentally-harmful releases underscore the need to complete projects such as the state's River of Grass purchase of US Sugar Corporation lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) and use it for water storage, treatment, and conveyance to the southern Everglades where it is needed.