A visit to the eastern shores of Lake Okeechobee this Earth Day should be accompanied by the ominous tones of the “Jaws” theme song.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, a blue-green algae bloom on the lake is growing.
On April 13, satellite imaging showed a potential bloom covering about 150 square miles of the lake. The day before, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection tested cyanobacteria — commonly called blue-green algae — near the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam and measured the toxin microcystin at 22 parts per billion. That’s nearly three times the level deemed hazardous by the federal government.
Microcystin can cause skin and eye irritation, nausea and vomiting, difficulty breathing and liver disease. Another toxin in cyanobacteria, BMAA, is linked to neurological diseases including ALS. But DEP doesn’t test for that toxin — so who knows if it’s looming in Lake O?
On Earth Day in particular everyone wants to be “green.” But not like this.
For if lake water containing this poison is discharged into the fragile St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, we could see a repeat of the “lost summers” of 2016 and 2018. Guacamole-thick blooms could clog the rivers, shutter businesses and kill marine life.
It doesn’t have to be this way — and it won’t, if we can finally “Fix the FLO.”
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is developing a new “playbook” for managing Lake Okeechobee. The existing Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule will be replaced by the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), designed to better accommodate a variety of stakeholders.
Corps officials say they’re aiming for a “balanced” plan. Problem is, no one’s sure exactly what that means.
Will there be shared adversity? Or will the northern estuaries — including the Lake Worth Lagoon — continue to get hammered by toxic water, even as the sugar fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area continue to receive just the right amount of water to ensure a bumper crop?
While the Corps’ plan seeks to serve many masters, the reality is it’s possible for LOSOM to protect communities from toxins by ending discharges to the St. Lucie, and better managing discharges to the Caloosahatchee. That should be the Corps’ ultimate goal, and the South Florida Water Management District must help get us there.
The new playbook must include plans to move more clean Lake O water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay during the dry season, before algae blooms become prevalent. Doing so can protect human health and the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake. It can safeguard the economy and marine life. It can benefit the parched Everglades and protect Florida Bay from hypersaline conditions.
The first draft of the new Lake O management plan is tentatively scheduled to be released in July. If, at that time, the estuaries are clogged with cyanobacteria, it will be an environmental crisis.
But if the new playbook doesn’t do enough to prevent such toxic scenes from recurring in the future, it could be a political crisis, too. Residents and activists may ask: What’s the point of LOSOM, if not to prevent this?
We’ve got a chance to get this right — or we could be facing lost summers on both of Florida’s coasts as far as the eye can see.
So it’s time to Fix the FLO; it’s time to ensure this “balanced” plan provides relief for the northern estuaries, and ensures a better, more equitable future for Florida’s iconic waters – and all who rely on them.
You can help by adding your name to the Fix the FLO petition. Help us get to 10,000 signatures so the powers-that-be know Florida residents are fed up with a water-management system that prioritizes enriching the sugar industry over protecting public health.