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Congressman Mast Demands a Halt to Lake Okeechobee Discharges After Traces of Blue-Green Algae Are Found in the St. Lucie Estuary

Ralph Arwood & Calusa Waterkeeper via Friends of the Everglades

Martin County - Wednesday March 27, 2024: Congressman Brian Mast is "demanding" that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) immediately halt discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary, after traces of blue-green algae were found in the estuary, down stream from the Lake.

Since February 17th, the Army Corps has, on average, been releasing water from the lake at the rate of 4,000 cubic-feet-per-second down the Caloosahatchee Estuary and at the rate of 1,800 cubic feet per second down the St. Lucie Estuary. The fresh Lake water has already reduced salinity levels in both estuaries threatening the upcoming oyster spawning season.

Congressman Brian Mast

On Monday the Florida Department of Environmental Protection took samples from the C-44 canal and further downstream at the South Fork of the St. Lucie River and, according to results posted on the Congressman's Facebook page, they found the presence of microcystis aeruginosa, a form of blue-green algae that can be toxic.

On his Facebook page, the Congressman says the releases have created "a public health emergency, and a threat to our entire ecosystem."

In his March 25th letter to the Army Corps, Mast writes that the "ongoing discharges are not only incredibly damaging to our estuary but directly contradict the USACE"s best available science and modeling. I urge you to immediately cease the discharges to the St. Lucie Estuary."

In order to allow salinity levels to recover, South Florida Deputy Commander Major Cory Bell told reports on last Friday's Lake O media call that the Corps would pause water releases from the Lake for two weeks, starting this Saturday, March 30. After that releases would resume, but he said it's likely the rate would be reduced.

On his Facebook page, Mast said the "two-week 'pause' in toxic discharges is a slap in the face to our community," and he said he is "demanding a long-term halt to the discharges. It’s the only way to prevent another lost summer."

Friends of the Everglades
The environmental non-profit 'Friends of the Everglades' also released a statement today decrying what they said have been the "harmful discharges" which have "wreaked havoc on Florida's ... coastal estuaries." The group points to what they called the "ominous early algae bloom in the northwest corner of Lake Okeechobee" which they fear "signals a potentially toxic summer ahead."

'Friends of the Everglades' blames "a rigged system prioritizing sugarcane growers' drainage needs, leaving little room to redirect water south when needed most."

Their suggested solution is a "more equitable use of 62,000-acres of stormwater treatment areas (STAs) south of the lake." Those areas are currently prioritized to clean agricultural runoff, but the group maintains that "these taxpayer-funded treatment marshes can be better utilized to store and treat water from Lake Okeechobee, safeguarding coastal estuaries and replenishing the Everglades."

The responsibility, they say, rests with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board which has the authority "to prioritize Floridians over sugar, by reserving more space in the STAs for Lake O water."