Florida algae crisis: Four possible fixes for the Everglades algal blooms

Chad Gillis
The News-Press

Algal blooms have raged across much of the historic Everglades this summer, drawing the ire of residents and visitors and attention from national media. 

Sky blue and avocado green waters have enveloped the Caloosahatchee River, and Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River are suffering too. 

Some residents living in the towns around Lake Okeechobee believe they are getting a bad rap for water quality and algae issues that are affecting both coasts of Florida. They say that the negative media attention is affecting tourism and keeping fisherman away. Images from Moore Haven, Clewiston and the east side of Lake Okeechobee.

Mats of blue-green algae have piled up in canals and at water control structures in Fort Myers and Cape Coral, and lake releases to the Miami Canal last weekend caused the South Bay area to smell like a horse farm. 

So how does Florida remedy this algae crisis? 

The most pressing need is for more storage, treatment and conveyance of water throughout the system, which is about the size of New Jersey. 

The long-term goal is to reduce the damaging discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers while also sending more water south to Florida Bay. 

Here's a look at four projects or ideas that are expected to at least partially help the situation, along with some reasons why they may not be enough to fix Florida's algae crisis.

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Caloosahatchee Reservoir

The lake recharges aquifers in South Florida and provides more than 700 square miles of fish, plant and wildlife habitat.

According to a 2015 study from the University of Florida Water Institute, 1.6 million acre-feet of storage is needed north, east, south and west of Lake Okeechobee. 

An acre-foot of storage is 1 foot of water spread over an acre, or about 325,000 gallons. 

For the Caloosahatchee River, that storage will largely come from the Caloosahatchee Reservoir, sometimes called C-43. 

"The C-43 reservoir will capture and store water that is delivered in excess to the Caloosahatchee estuary and hold that water into the dry season and make it available to deliver to the estuary to meet low flow requirements," said project manager Matt Morrison, with the South Florida Water Management District. "It will help in a sense to mitigate the damaging discharges that are currently occurring during the wet season and high water events and will deliver it to the estuary during dry times. It helps the ecology on the wet end and helps the ecology on the dry end."

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The $600 million Caloosahatchee Reservoir will hold about 170,000 acre-feet of water that will be pulled from the river, stored and later released. 

But that's only a fraction of the 400,000 acre-feet of storage needed in the Caloosahatchee watershed, according to the 2015 UF report. 

Also, water coming back out of the reservoir will have to meet state regulations, and any reduction in water quality could mean that the water can't be released. 

"They have to meet Florida provisions for discharging that water and if it doesn't meet that water quality criteria, theoretically they can't discharge it," said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. 

EAA Reservoir

A similar but larger reservoir is being planned for south of Lake Okeechobee after Sen. Joe Negron pushed Senate Bill 10 through in 2017. 

Called the Everglades Agriculture Area, or EAA, reservoir, this compound will store 300,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of $1.3 billion. 

And while the EAA reservoir isn't directly attached to the Caloosahatchee or St. Lucie, the project will still help cut down on Okeechobee discharges to the rivers. 

'It really serves a dual purposes," Morrison said. "It reduces the damaging discharges to the estuaries and we're redirecting that water to the Everglades, which needs the water." 

While the project will cut down on Lake Okeechobee releases, it's still only a portion of the 1 million acre-feet of storage the UF study said is needed north and south of the lake. 

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Storage projects are being built and planned north of the lake, but some are concerned that the EAA reservoir won't do enough for the south side of the system. 

"All we’re doing is building a reservoir," said Butch Wilson of Clewiston. "The only positive thing you can say about it is it will create jobs."

"I don’t’ think you’re going to notice anything," Wilson continued. "If you look at how many billions of gallons of water goes to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee and you start calculating that, you‘ll see we’d overflow it in a day."

The EAA reservoir is not designed to end all water quality problems and is just one aspect of Everglades restoration. 

Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule

Storage could also come from the repaired Herbert Hoover Dike, a 143-mile concrete and earthen berm that surrounds Lake Okeechobee. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the middle of a $1.7 billion restoration of the dike, and work is expected to be completed in 2022. 

A lot is asked of Lake Okeechobee: it's the liquid heart of what's left of the Everglades ecosystem that must also supply drinking water to millions of Floridians and large agriculture operations without getting lower than 12.5 feet above sea level or higher than 15.5 feet above sea level. 

Army Corps protocols, called the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, or LORS, will be studied soon to see if more water can be held in the lake. That would mean less water flushed down both rivers.

"We are having those conversations and we certainly remain committed to having the LORS discussion in advance of completion of the rehabilitation so that if we identify flexibility within that, we want to be able to do that and not spend two or three years doing a study," said Army Corps spokesman John Campbell. 

Storing additional water on the lake, though, will likely have an impact on the lake itself. 

Scott Martin, with Roland Martin Marina and Resort in Clewiston, said holding the lake at higher levels will cause water quality issues because it will kill grasses currently filtering the water. 

"Grass does not grow in a high, muddy lake," Martin said. "The grass will not grow if the lake is 16 or 17 feet of water and muddy. We’ll never, ever have grass in the lake. What does that mean for waters going east, west and south? It means that water is not being cleaned."

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Deep Well Injection

Dealing with too much water in the summer and too little water in the winter, the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary has been plagued with algae for several weeks now. 

The bloom started in Lake Okeechobee and has since shown up in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. 

And while most of the water that's flowed through the river since mid-May has come from the river's watershed, Okeechobee releases have contributed to the problems here. 

Using deep injection wells is one answer the state has promoted in recent years. 

The idea is to pump water 3,000 feet or more below sea level, down to brackish water aquifers. 

That water would basically bypass the estuaries and emerge in the open Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. 

South Florida Water Management District plans call for about 50 wells to be built north and west of Lake Okeechobee and along the eastern portion of the Caloosahatchee River.

The Army Corps, however, turned down the chance to partner with the state on the wells, which leaves the district on its own. 

Critics, however, say deep injection wells are a waste of water. 

"We haven't been able to meet our minimum flow for the Caloosahatchee for a long time, so if there's going to be less water available during the wet season it's going to make it harder to meet that (criteria) in the dry season," Cassani said. 

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Twitter.