By Dan DeLuca & Amy Bennett Williams,
Fort Myers News-Press
Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged it has released water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers that has contained toxic cyanobacteria.
In a July 10 hearing about the releases from Lake Okeechobee, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Palm City Republican, questioned Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon of the Corps.
The hearing took place before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Washington, D.C., and Mast published a portion of the exchange on his website.
REP. MAST: Has the Army Corps of Engineers transferred toxic water — toxic water — from Lake Okeechobee to the East through the C-44 [canal] into the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon and to the West through the Caloosahatchee River?
MAJOR GENERAL SCOTT SPELLMON: Yes, sir. We have conveyed water out the system that has contained cyanobacteria and harmful algae blooms. Yes, sir.
REP. MAST: And the Corps considers that toxic?
MG SPELLMON: Yes, sir.
Releases from Lake Okeechobee contributed to last year’s disastrous blue-green algae bloom, which crippled the Caloosahatchee River and filled some Southwest Florida canals with carpet-like mats of toxic algae.
There were 12 times during the 2018 blue-green algae bloom when water in and around the St. Lucie River was too toxic to swim in.
Last week, the Corps began warning boaters about harmful algae, part of a new push by the Corp’s Jacksonville district (which includes the lake) to educate the public about the blooms
The Army Corps of Engineers discharged about 83 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee water to the St. Lucie River between June 1 and Oct. 5. Some of that water brought toxic blue-green algae with it, and algae blooms were scattered through the river for much of the summer in 2018.
At times, the blooms were highly toxic. An Aug. 2 water sample from Central Marine on the river’s north shore in Stuart contained the toxin microcystin at a rate 11 times the level considered hazardous in recreational contact by the World Health Organization.
Army Corps starts urging Caloosahatchee, Lake O boaters to be aware of harmful algae
In a tweet hashtagged #StopThePoisoning, Mast later wrote, “The Army Corps yesterday admitted to intentionally discharging toxic water from Lake Okeechobee and putting the health and human safety of our communities at risk. We cannot allow this to continue any longer.”
But the content of Wednesday’s conversation is nothing new, points out Corps spokesman John Campbell, though he allows the context may be.
“Do we routinely use the word ‘toxic’?” he asked, implying the answer is no. “But I would suggest that we have not made a secret that there’s been nutrients and bacteria in the water that flows through the structures that we operate at Lake Okeechobee,” he said. “I don’t know that we have tried to play up that the water that gets released from the lake is charged with nutrients, but certainly, we’ve acknowledged many times its impacts downstream.
“Certainly it may have been the first time in response to a rather pointed question that we have acknowledged that the water was toxic, but I think that misses some of the larger debate and in what context are we making releases.
One of the reasons the Corps has avoided characterizing the water as toxic is because “It’s not really our place to say what the composition of the water is,” Campbell said. The Corps doesn’t sample or test for algal toxins.
“We ‘re not resourced to do that — in fact, we’re not authorized to do that,” he said. “Congress tells us what to spend money on (and it’s not) conducting routine tests on the quality of the water in Lake Okeechobee. Typically that is seen as a function of another governmental entity.”
The Florida Department of Health could fill that role, says Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani’s, but hasn’t, to his ongoing frustration.
He applauds the Corps for its efforts to inform the public about harmful algal blooms, including its recent warning to boaters.
“(Saying) this is in the context of this is dangerous to the public and now we’re making a public health notice about it, I think that’s the difference ... at least some agency is stepping up and doing it,” he said. “Florida Department of Health is not.”