Article Courtesy of The
Treasure Coast Newspapers
By Max Chesnes
Published March 3, 2021
STUART — City officials are sounding the alarm to state water managers, claiming
they're worried Lake Okeechobee's higher-than-normal elevation could prompt
further damaging releases into the fragile St. Lucie River estuary.
Currently standing at
15 feet, 3 inches, Lake Okeechobee's level is over 2.6 feet
higher than this time last year, according to data from the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Tropical Storm Eta's November
rainfall helped fill the lake to this above-average height.
Now, as the threat of reopening the floodgates looms, city
officials are urging the South Florida Water Management
District to send excess lake water south into the thirsty
Everglades and through state-managed stormwater treatment
areas, or marshes.
"The critical importance of conveying this volume of lake
water south before the wet season cannot be overstated," the
city commission wrote in a letter to the SFWMD board Monday.
City commissioners claim the state's marshes south of the
lake are disproportionately treating local runoff and aren't
doing enough to handle the excess lake water, according to
Mary Radabaugh, manager of Central Marine Stuart,
shares a summary of the marina's frequent fight with toxic
Between May 1 and Feb. 25, just over 6% of marsh-treated water was released
south from Lake Okeechobee, and the remainder was local basin runoff, according
to data presented Thursday to the Rivers Coalition by Drew Bartlett, SFWMD
"We are sending water south. It's not a lot right now," Bartlett told the
coalition, a consortium of over 70 businesses, homeowners associations,
nonprofit agencies and fishing clubs with a mission is to end Lake O discharges
into the river.
The reason for the current low volume of lake water, Bartlett said, is because
the marshes are still recovering after incoming water was "cranked up" late last
year, just before Tropical Storm Eta dumped up to 3 to 4 inches of water in some
"When we pushed all that water into the (marshes), it really challenged them,"
He likened it to cleaning a fish tank: When you pour more water into the top of
the tank, the plants at the bottom are stirred up and eventually float to the
"When we end up pushing a lot of water through the (storm water treatment
areas), that's what happens: It gets full, and those plants start to float and
they need to be attached."
One of the marshes, dubbed "1 West", is currently unavailable as the vegetation
continues to recover, Bartlett told the coalition. It likely won't be repaired
until the start of the wet season.
If more water heads over already damaged marshes, it can render the stormwater
treatment areas unusable for years, Bartlett said.
"When we're at a lake stage like we have right now, we are always looking for
those opportunities to use these (treatment areas)," Bartlett told the
coalition. "But we have to make sure they're functional in the other parts of
the year as well."
Still, this ratio of lake water heading south "remains neither equitable nor
adequate," city officials wrote Monday. "Unfortunately, the consequence of this
unanticipated outcome has been felt greatly in the coastal estuaries, Florida
Bay, and the Everglades."
Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution Feb. 22 to pave the way for
sending the letter, effectively etching their concerns over a high Lake O level
on the official record.
The Corps Thursday indicated it will decide soon whether to discharge excess
water to the St. Lucie River.
The longer Lake O stays at a stalled level, "the more likely it is" that
discharges will be coming, said the Corps' Florida Commander, Col. Andrew Kelly.
He hinted a more definitive plan would be outlined in two weeks.
Stuart officials urged the Corps to work alongside the district to ensure more
water is sent south, reducing the ever-growing chances that freshwater will be
discharged into the fragile river before the rainy season.
"These sufferings have been particularly severe to our natural environment and
our unique and diverse aquatic habitat," officials wrote in the letter.
"So long as the EAA is the primary and near-exclusive beneficiary of this
infrastructure, lake water will continue to be discharged to our community and
at the expense of our economy and natural environment," the commission wrote.