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Find out what the Army Corps is doing to battle the algae problem in Lake Okeechobee. Andrea Melendez, Fort Myers News-Press

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released higher volumes of water this past spring to keep Lake Okeechobee levels lower in case of a blue-green algal bloom. 

Some say the strategy has worked because blooms have been showing up in the lake this summer, but not as much in the Caloosahatchee River or adjoining canals. 

Now the Corps is asking for feedback from the public because it wants to operate with a more flexible schedule between now and 2022, when repairs to the Herbert Hover Dike are finished and a new Lake Okeechobee management manual is completed. 

"The goal is to have the same amount of water each year but to time the flows better so there's less risk of harmful algal bloom impacts," said Army Corps spokesman Jim Yocum.

Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, refer to outbreaks that are damaging to the ecology, wildlife and humans. 

Last year a blue-green algae bloom that started on the lake and moved to the river was releasing toxins. 

The Army Corps wants the ability basically to avoid a repeat from last year. 

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"We want to have an operational strategy to reduce discharges while there are harmful algal blooms on the lake," Yocum said. "We're asking for the ability to increase rates greater than what (the current schedule) would call for when there are no HABS on the lake and less when there are HABs on the lake." 

The current Army Corps manual says the surface of the lake must be kept between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level in order to protect the people and businesses surrounding the lake while also providing water to people and the natural system. 

Today, the Everglades is controlled through a large network of canals and ditches, which send water on the landscape to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. 

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The system stretches from just south of Orlando to the Florida Keys and includes 16 counties. 

Environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and Calusa Waterkeeper filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps earlier this year, saying the agency should release more water before the summer rains arrive. 

The Army Corps did release more water this past spring, and lake levels have been below 12 feet above sea level for months. 

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But the low levels caused U.S. Sugar to file a second suit against the Army Corps, this one saying the agency should not have released high volumes of water earlier this year because it goes against regulations. 

The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were artificially connected to Lake Okeechobee in order to drain the Everglades for farming and development. 


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Jaclyn Lopez with the Center for Biological Diversity said their lawsuit against the Army Corps has not advanced much in recent months. 

"It's still ongoing," Lopez said. "We haven't resolved anything."

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Lopez, though, said the center is supporting the Army Corps plan to deviate from the LORs schedule. 

"We're pleased to see they recognize they have a role in this and this is effecting people and the economy," Lopez said. "We're hopeful this will result in some effective, meaningful change. I think it's a positive step in the right direction given what the Caloosahatchee went through last year." 

Not everyone is in favor of the deviation. 

U.S. Sugar filed its lawsuit against the Army Corps because the agency did release higher volumes of water in the dry season. 

U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said in a statement that the Corps is inconsistent, saying a recent planned draw down of East Lake Tohopekaliga (known as Lake Toho) received a full, transparent public process, including an environmental impact statement, but not Lake Okeechobee.

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"Lake Okeechobee is too important a water body to be treated as less deserving of full due process than the smaller lake," Sanchez wrote. "The six million residents of South Florida deserve the same, including more than a scant 15 days to consider and provide public comment.

"While everyone understands that harmful algal blooms are an issue, this is yet another Corps action that has demonstrated their continued disregard for their own rules and regulations, in clear violation of federal law (National Environmental Policy Act).”

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Share your thoughts

Do you want to give feedback? Comments can be mailed to Jacksonville District Corps of Engineers, 701 San Marco Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 32207-8175. Comments will also be accepted by email at Melissa.a.nasuti@usace.army.mil through Aug. 21. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter. 

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