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Our Town with William Kelly: Town urges Army Corps to reduce harmful water discharges into Lake Worth Lagoon

Palm Beach is encouraging the federal government to embrace a plan that would sharply reduce discharges of polluted Lake Okeechobee water into coastal estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon.

The Town Council unanimously approved on Tuesday a resolution calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to approve a water release plan that would send more Lake Okeechobee discharges southward into the Everglades than is done under existing operational guidelines.

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said, whatever plan is chosen, it will affect the quality of the town’s drinking water and of the lagoon.

The plan recommended by the town is one of several being considered.

“None of these plans are perfect,” Lindsay said. “All of them need fine-tuning. But this seems to be a good starting point.” Town officials and residents have expressed concern about harmful blue-green algae blooms that have become increasingly frequent in coastal waters since 2016.

Toxic cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, were detected this spring in Lake Okeechobee and in canals that carry harmful water discharges into the Lake Worth Lagoon.

Concerns intensified on May 28 when the City of West Palm Beach announced it had detected high levels of cylindrospermopsin, a toxin produced by a variety of freshwater cyanobacteria, in its water supply. The city relies on surface water, its two main sources being Lake Okeechobee and the Grassy Waters Everglades Preserve.

West Palm Beach’s water treatment plant draws water from East Clear Lake. The water is provided to customers in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach.

The Army Corps manages Lake Okeechobee for flood control and water supply purposes. Every 10 years, the Corps updates its Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM.

After two years of study, the Corps has zeroed in on six water-release alternatives and is accepting public comment.

Tim Gysan, project engineer for the Army Corps, recently said the Corps will make its decision in August, then refine it through October to flesh out operational details.

The alternatives are based on complicated computer models. Some have called on the Army Corps to delay a decision to allow more time for public consideration.

But the council, in its resolution, urged the Army Corps not to delay, and to adopt “Alternative CC” – a plan strongly favored by environmental groups and many members of the public.

The resolution states the town’s motive is to “protect our water supply, improve the natural environment and water quality.”

Lisa Interlandi, executive director of the Everglades Law Center, which also is recommending “Alternative CC,” said it is the most balanced and environmentally sensitive option.

It would discharge more Lake Okeechobee water into the Everglades during the dry season months and allow managers to store more water in the lake during wet seasons without harmful discharges into the estuaries.

“This puts the environment on an equal footing,” Interlandi said.

Lake Okeechobee is heavily polluted after decades of receiving water runoff containing sewage and rich nutrients from fertilizers used in agriculture and developments. The Army Corps has historically used the lake to store water to make sure there is an adequate supply for water users, including for agricultural irrigation, during dry periods.

But when water levels in the lake get too high for flood safety during the rainy season months, they are reduced by discharging water to the south, and into canals and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. The Lake Worth Lagoon receives discharges from Lake Okeechobee through the C-51 canal, which empties into the lagoon near the Southern Boulevard Bridge.

None of the alternatives being considered are ideal for everyone, Interlandi said. Option “CC” would allow more harmful discharges into the Caloosahatchee River than into the St. Lucie River or Lake Worth Lagoon. But the Caloosahatchee would fare better under “CC” than it does under the Corps’ existing water release plan, she said.

Dr. Thomas Van Lent, director of science and policy at the Everglades Foundation, said the water sent south under “CC” will be treated in existing marshes and meet state water-quality standards before reaching the Everglades.

The Everglades Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration and protection of the Everglades ecosystem.

Van Lent said “CC” essentially would mean that, if there is a blue-green algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee, the problem will not be spread into Palm Beach County through harmful discharges.

The plan has the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Audubon Florida, Friends of the Everglades, and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, among others, Interlandi said.

The South Florida Water Management District’s governing board is expected to recommend its preference to the Army Corps later this week. The water district board meets at 9 a.m. Thursday at its headquarters in West Palm Beach. Participation will be through both Zoom and in person.

The council requested that town staff read the town’s resolution to the water district board at Thursday’s meeting. It also specified that a copy of it be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I will make sure this [resolution] is communicated to the appropriate people,” Town Manager Kirk Blouin said.