DeSantis urges balance in Lake O releases, emergency order over water quality unnecessary
Facing a significant threat growing toxic blue-green algae outbreak in the Lake Okeechobee system and a red tide in the Gulf of Mexico, Gov. Ron DeSantis stopped in Fort Myers.
Here, he met with Southwest Florida community stakeholders Wednesday to discuss how the state can avoid a repeat of 2018.
With the Caloosahatchee River in the background, DeSantis urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to draft a new system operating manual for the lake.
He urged them to develop it with the intent of sending water south during the dry season to create more capacity during the rainy season as he met with reporters and local leaders and business people during a news conference at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers.
“There needs to be an emphasis to keep the lake at a more manageable level during the dry season so when we did have the rainy season you would not be needing to hopefully discharge any water," DeSantis said.
"But certainly, you could mitigate the problems with that."
The lake levels are more than 1 foot above the Army Corps regulation schedule for the June 1 start of the hurricane season.
“And you know that, in 2019 and 2020, by in large those were very positive years comparable to what we saw in 2018. Unfortunately, in December the Army Corps said they wouldn’t be managing the lake like they had the last two years. They were not going to be releasing as much water in the dry season. And Southwest Florida asked for water during the dry season.”
In 2018, a blue-green algae bloom began on the lake and spread to the Caloosahatchee and estuary.
DeSantis witnessed his state’s coastal communities struggle financially during the crisis. He seeks to prevent history from repeating itself.
The Army Corps said the lake level currently sits at 13.74 feet and will drop to 12 ½ feet by the end of May.
On Monday, DeSantis took a helicopter tour over Lake Okeechobee, starting in Fort Myers and ending in Stuart.
“When you’re releasing massive quantities of water into these estuaries you can have all the water quality components in the world, but just the sheer volume of that is going to create problems,” DeSantis said. “. ... I’ve actually told South Florida Water Management District; you release all that you can south. And they are doing that.”
He mentioned the ongoing infrastructure projects will mitigate a lot of the problems. In the meantime, he said hopes the Army Corps can strike a balance in water releases between the dry and rainy seasons.
Chris Wittman, a co-founder of Captains for Clean Water, stood next to DeSantis. He was happy the governor could provide an important voice on this issue.
“Right now, what we’re dealing with as far as lake levels and the algae on the lake," Wittman said. "Once we get to a situation where we are today where the lake is much higher than it should be entering the wet season and we have algae present, there’s not much we can do.".
Several environmental groups, including Calusa Waterkeeper, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Everglades and about a dozen others, asked DeSantis in a May 8 letter to declare a state of emergency for communities impacted by the growing toxic blue-green algae outbreak.
DeSantis said it wasn’t necessary.
“The emergency order does not impact the Army Corps releasing algae. The emergency order would let you access funds that I already have access to,” DeSantis said. “ … This is not the state’s doing of that lake getting higher and them doing releases. That’s the federal government that is doing that. ...
“Obviously, we’re in a different administration now and they have different priorities. It’s them that are doing that. Declaring a state of emergency isn’t going to have any impact on that.”