Q&A of the Day – Lake Okeechobee’s Toxic Algae, Manatees & Tracking East-West Discharges
Each day I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.
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Today’s Entry: Hey Brian, I was frustrated when we heard the feds were playing games in delaying the new discharge schedule from Lake O. Now I’m furious as we’re hearing there is already toxic algae in the lake. The six-month delay of the new schedule all but ensures that we’re going to have toxic algae released in our waterways again this year. A couple of questions for you. It seemed like the record manatee deaths last year helped keep the pressure on the Army Corps to limit discharges. I haven’t heard much about them this year. How have manatees been faring so far this year? Also, how much water is still being discharged east and west out of the lake? Thanks, and keep the pressure on the feds!
Bottom Line: I hear your frustration and understand. The recent announcement about the six-month postponement of the new discharge schedule, previously approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, was a kick in the gut for many of us who’ve advocated for an end to the unnatural east-west discharges which have caused extensive environmental destruction, including serving as a primary factor in the record manatee deaths experienced during 2021 and which remained elevated last year. In recent days Palm Beach and Martin Counties have issued advisories pertaining to toxic blue-green algae, which has been detected in Lake Okeechobee. The algae present a risk to people and wildlife alike and is all but certain to be released with discharges out of the lake throughout the late spring and summer. What’s worse, is that an early algal bloom in Lake O’ has commonly been a sign of much more to come as weather heats up and rain picks up. As for how much water has been recently released east and west – I'll start there.
There are a total of three eastern canals the Army Corps uses for discharges, two that direct water south, and one which leads west. Discharges are based on the depth of water in the Lake, and we’ve seen regular discharges taking place over the past couple of months on back of an early start to rainy season this year. The average depth of Lake Okeechobee on this date historically has been 13.5 feet. Even with regular discharges, the most recent depth has been 14.2 feet – indicating more discharges are on the way. The Army Corp updates discharge information most Friday’s and the most recent reporting shows that over the previous week discharges went like this:
- 90% West
- 9% South
- 1% East
Southern discharges represent the natural flow of water from Lake Okeechobee and are the most ideal. So, obviously the bad news is that 91% of the discharges happening are unnatural and disruptive to nature. Now, fortunately for our coast most recently, discharges have been light relative to the massive discharges being sent to Florida’s Gulf Coast. The western bias for discharges has been consistent year-to-date and it is likely that concern over manatee habitat destruction in eastern estuaries, including the most important of all for Florida’s manatees, the Indian River Lagoon, have influenced the western and, secondarily southern, discharges. Still, any eastern discharges remain unnatural and destructive – especially with the now looming threat of toxic algae being released with water going forward. Though even when you hear that only 1% of discharges were eastern over the prior week, that still represented 13,464 gallons of water. As for manatee deaths thus far this year...
The most recent update from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows a total of 268 documented manatee deaths through April 28th. Notably, the highest concentration of deaths thus far hasn’t been on our coast, but on the Gulf Coast with Lee County accounting for greater than a quarter of the deaths thus far. There have been a total of 4 documented deaths in Palm Beach County and just one in Martin. Through the same date in the prior year, we’d already had 536 deaths – so the death total this year is exactly half of last year’s pace. That’s the improved news. However, after two years of elevated manatee mortalities including 2021’s record year for recorded deaths, necessarily has resulted in fewer manatees in existence. So, the improvement in the pace of deaths is a combination of improving news, but also in part a byproduct of the tragic starvation crisis over the previous couple of years due to habitat loss. Let's hope discharges come at a minimum and that six months from now the previously agreed to change in discharge schedules take effect.