STUART — When it comes to managing water in the South Florida Water Management District, Rep. Brian Mast just wants releases from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River to stop. In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Nov. 20, Mast showed no concern for flooding currently causing environmental damage in other parts of the Everglades.
Earlier this month, Tropical Storm Eta flooded the Everglades, devastating the habitat for wildlife there and endangering the tree islands not only critical to the ecosystem but also sacred to the Miccosukee Tribe. The high water levels south of the lake make it impossible to flow water south.
In a Nov. 20 letter to Col. Andrew Kelly, Rep. Brian Mast wrote: “On Nov. 19, you stated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was planning to continue to heavy volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie that have been ongoing since Oct. 14. I am urging you to stop these discharges.
“Over the past month, 35 billion gallons of water have been discharged to the St. Lucie by the Army Corps. As you are aware, these high-volume discharges are damaging our ecosystem,” he wrote.
“When you began discharges, you stated you would stop discharging when you successfully slowed the rate of rise on Lake Okeechobee. The lake is substantially lower today than it was a week ago. Furthermore, according to Kevin Rodriguez, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Melbourne, ‘for all intents and purposes the rainy season is over and the dry season is here.’ He also stated that the relevant area of Florida isn’t forecast to have ‘any signficant rainfall in the foreseeable future.’
“Your decision to continue discharges despite these facts is akin to Lucy pulling the football out from underneath Charlie Brown. To be clear, our Treasure Coast community has been Charlie Brown for too long. We will not tolerate the abuse.
“In conclusion, with the lake stabilized and the wet season over, it is time to stop discharges before the Army Corps causes even more long-term, irreversible damage to our estuary.”
In the letter, Mast apparently fails to consider other factors that affect the lake level and the need for releases. For example:
• Col. Kelly’s statement back on Oct. 14 that the discharges would end when the lake’s rise was under control did not anticipate the heavy rainfall dumped by Tropical Storm Eta. According to Col. Kelly, the first two weeks of November brought as much water as the system normally gets in November, December and January combined. Current releases are the result of the impact of that storm.
• When Col. Kelly made the statement in an Oct. 14 media call that he hoped to stop the releases east and west as soon as they got the rise of the lake under control, he also advised that a big storm could change that. Earlier in the wet season, when the lake rose to about 15.5 feet, Kelly had also explained that they were holding off on releases, but if there was a big storm, that could mean higher volume releases later in the year.
• In his letter, Mast claims the lake level is “substaintially lower than it was a week ago.” While the lake is lower than it was a week ago, it is still well above the 15.5 feet upper limit of set by the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule. The lake is also higher than it was when releases started. On Oct. 14, Lake Okeechobee was 16.25 feet. On Nov. 13, despite the releases (and due to Tropical Storm Eta) the lake level was 16.45 feet. On Nov. 23, the lake level was 16.27 feet.
• In his Nov. 19 letter, Mast claimed the wet season is over, but some areas north of the lake received rainfall on Nov. 21, Nov. 22 and Nov. 23.
• Mast states 35 billion gallons of water from the lake has been discharged to the St. Lucie since Oct. 14. But he doesn’t mention the approximately 70 billion gallons of water that backflowed from the St. Lucie Canal into the lake earlier in the wet season, to protect the St. Lucie estuary from excess freshwater flow from its own local basin runoff. According to the corps, during the first part of the wet season, enough water backflowed from the east into the lake to raise the lake by about 6 inches. Since Oct. 14, the St. Lucie has gotten about half of that water back. While that heavy freshwater flow is not good for the estuaries because it lowers the salinity levels, it would have been much more damaging if that basin flow had gone through the St. Lucie Lock earlier in the summer. The good conditions enjoyed in the St. Lucie River this summer were due, in part, to the fact that local basin runoff was backflowed into the lake instead of released into the estuary. Also of note, the C-44 basin historically has higher nutrient loads than Lake Okeechobee, so the 70 billion gallons that backflowed into the lake from Martin County was higher in nutrient load than the lake water released back into the C-44 canal, another plus for the St. Lucie.
• In the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) discussions, Mast has lobbied for the lake level to be below 11 feet by June 1 so there is more capacity in the lake for wet season runoff. No water can move south until the flooding there subsides. The halt in flow south was not a corps decision; it was Mother Nature. The water simply will move in that direction until the water levels in the water conservation areas (WCAs) there drop. That could take until January or Februrary. Evapotranspiration will take care of some of the water, but not enough to lower the lake more than 3 feet in the winter. (Hot, sunny days in the summer provide the highest levels of evapotranspiration.) According to water managers, the only option they have to lower the lake is to send water east and west. And they’re not even trying to get it below 11 feet by June 1 (the target endorsed by Mast). The current target is to get it below 13 feet by June 1.
• The target flow at the St. Lucie Lock was set at 1,800 cfs. However, for some of the period since Oct. 14, much of the flow has been local basin runoff, not water from the lake. The lake connects to the St. Lucie Canal at Port Mayaca, which is 23.9 miles from the St. Lucie Lock. For the seven day period ending Nov. 20, flow at the Port Mayaca Lock averaged 1,581 cfs. Flow at the St. Lucie Lock averaged 2,261 cfs.
• While Mast complained the St. Lucie was singled out for “abuse,” the St. Lucie River has gotten less than half of the Lake Okeechobee flow to the Caloosahatchee River. Flow from the lake to the Caloosahatchee, measured at Moore Haven where the lake connects to the river, has a target of 4,000 cfs while the target at the St. Lucie Lock is 1,800 cfs. In addition, unlike the flow at the St. Lucie Lock, which is a mixture of lake water and basin runoff, the flow at Moore Haven is all from the lake.