Our Town with William Kelly: September 21, 2021

William Kelly  |  Our Environment  |  Our Town  |  September 21, 2021

Congressman Mast: Lake Worth Lagoon still in environmental ‘danger’

In July, town officials welcomed the announcement of a new Lake Okeechobee water management plan that would nearly eliminate harmful discharges into the Lake Worth Lagoon.

But last week, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, warned Mayor Danielle Moore and the Town Council that the cheers could be premature.

Mast said some Palm Beach County commissioners are asking federal water managers to modify the new plan so more water is stored in the lake. But that would result in more frequent water discharges from the lake during rainy periods, when lake levels are managed for flood control.

Some of those additional discharges would be coming through the C51 Canal and into the Lake Worth Lagoon, Mast said.

“Many county commissioners are advocating to hold Lake Okeechobee at higher levels,” he said. “They say it’s for water supply. It is. But it really is for agricultural water supply.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages water levels in the 730-square-mile lake for flood control, water supply and recreation. Every 10 years, the Army Corps updates its Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, which governs water release plans for the lake.

After more than two years of study, the Army Corps announced in July its selection of a water management plan for the next 10 years. The plan, known as “alternative CC,” would eliminate about two-thirds of all discharges from the lake into the St. Lucie Estuary. At the same time, it would more than triple water flows south from the lake toward the Everglades.

The plan also would significantly increase the percentage of time the Caloosahatchee River receives optimal water flows – those that maintain the proper salinity levels – and nearly eliminate discharges into the Lake Worth Lagoon.

That news was generally well received by environmental groups and others, including the Town of Palm Beach, who had urged the Corps to adopt a plan that would improve water quality and minimize potentially toxic blue-green algae blooms in the estuaries.

But there was widespread consensus that “CC” needs to be “optimized” or fine-tuned for a better overall performance. Col. Andrew Kelly, who was then the commander of the Army Corps’ Jacksonville District, said in July the Corps would engage with the public and work on optimizing “CC’” between Aug. 5 and Oct. 14. The plan would become formal around Nov. 26 and take effect next year, he said.

Kelly has since retired from his post and was succeeded by Col. James Booth, who took command Sept. 9.

Mast said the optimization process could result in changes that would be bad for the Lake Worth Lagoon.

“There is still quite a bit of danger as we go through the optimization of this,” he told the council. “Now is not the time to take your foot off the pedal. You still need to write to the Army Corps of Engineers and get people in the community to do the same.”

The council, citing environmental and public health concerns, adopted a resolution in July putting the town’s support for alternative CC on record. On Tuesday, the council and Moore agreed that Moore will write a letter to Kelly’s successor reiterating the town’s concerns about the discharges into the Lake Worth Lagoon. The town also planned to email an alert urging residents to do the same.

“I think it would be a good idea to stay vigilant on this,” Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said. “Lots of new things can happen with a new colonel and this optimization.”

Mast’s district includes all of St. Lucie and Martin counties and the northeastern tip of Palm Beach County. The town of Palm Beach is represented by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

Mast has been pushing to solve the long-running problem of blue-green algae that has plagued Lake Okeechobee and the Pahokee Marina. He also has been fighting to put an end to the blooms from being discharged into coastal waterways.

Mast said some Palm Beach County commissioners are telling the Army Corps that they want more water stored in the lake while also saying they do not want more discharges of lake water flowing into Palm Beach County. But Mast said the commissioners can’t have it both ways. “It’s wanting to have your cake and eat it, too. They’re looking to appease agriculture.”
Through a consumptive use permit issued by the South Florida Water Management District, the City of West Palm Beach, which supplies water to its residents and Palm Beach and South Palm Beach, is allocated 16.6 billion gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee, Mast said.

Agricultural interests are allocated much more – 859 billion gallons of water, he said. “Traditionally, they only use about 50 percent of that allocation,” Mast said. “The rest ends up being discharged.”

Scientists say the algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee are directly linked to fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen. The long history of agriculture around the waterways that feed the lake, and development in the Kissimmee River watershed to the north of it, have put high amounts of phosphorus into the lake for decades.

This year saw the most toxic algae bloom ever measured in Lake Okeechobee, more than 100 times more toxic than what the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe for human contact, Mast said.

In an interview Friday, Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications at U.S. Sugar, said there are 16 municipalities in the Lake Worth watershed that depend on Lake Okeechobee for their backup water supply. It’s in everyone’s interest to maintain an adequate water supply in Lake Okeechobee to protect all water users during drought conditions, she said.

Eastern Palm Beach County has as much at stake as the western portion of the county, Sanchez said.

“There are hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses that need this water, as well as the farmers,” she said. “Palm Beach County is a huge agricultural producing area. People forget that farming is your food. Almost all of the fruits and vegetables we consume in the winter come from the Palm Beach County area.”

Ryan Duffy, director of corporate communications at U.S. Sugar, noted that farmers around Lake Okeechobee have said alternative CC “falls far short” of serving the interests of the lake itself and of most stakeholders, including the native American tribes, West Coast and Caloosahatchee River advocates and municipal water utilities and the customers they serve.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District and even the plan’s most ardent supporters have said it must be ‘optimized’ to be acceptable,” Duffy said in an emailed statement. “We still agree and look forward to engaging with all the stakeholders in an open and transparent public process to greatly improve the next iteration of LOSOM.”

The consumptive use permits account for varying weather situations in all types of years, including drought years like 2011, when dry conditions hit Palm Beach County hard, he said.

Lisa Interlandi, executive director of the Everglades Law Center, which is a nonprofit firm dedicated to protecting environmental and public land-use interests, told the council in July that “CC” is the most balanced and environmentally sensitive option. It would discharge more Lake Okeechobee water in 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, she said.

“This puts the environment on an equal footing” with agricultural and other interests, Interlandi said.

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