Algae water is flowing from Lake Okeechobee into C-44 canal

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Florida’s elaborate drainage and piping management system for the Greater Everglades System can sometimes amount to a matter of a few inches.

A few inches too little, and water needs cannot be met while Everglades snail fly nests are endangered by predators.

A few inches too much, and residents of coastal estuaries cry terribly as their summers are ruined by harmful algae, while everything from tiny crabs to oysters to protected queen seals suffers a slow, prolonged death.

Twists and turns

The subject of the limited scope of successful water management was brought up again – as weekly – at the South Florida media conference with Colonel Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps of Engineers. For the past three years, Kelly has had the unenviable task of guiding the agency through the twisting twists and turns to attempt to manage Lake Okeechobee’s water levels under conditions that are optimal for the myriad stakeholders connected to the largest backwater of the state.

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There was good news in this week’s call, but ironically, the discussion focused on what would usually be a minor concern: managing the water levels of the C-44 canal. Kelly was asked why water continues to flow eastward from the large lake into the channel, even though it carries cyanobacteria, the poisonous algae, with it. microcystis aeruginosa.

Water flows through the gates at Port Mayaca Lock and Dam, Kelly said, because there is a range where the Corps manages the canal – between 14 feet and 14.5 feet, or six inches.

“That’s for all intents and purposes – navigation, water supply, and to prevent downstream flooding at properties at lower elevations. It’s a very narrow envelope,” Corps spokesman Erica Skolte wrote in an email.

That’s not much room for maneuver given Mother Nature’s whims.

“There is a balance that we try to keep and we try to keep those levels. We keep it a little bit below the optimal level,” Kelly explained to the media.

Farms need water

Farms in western Martin County along the 23-mile C-44 Canal draw water from the canal for irrigation. Crops grown between Port Mayaca and the St. Lucie Lock and Dam include peppers, cucumbers, watermelons, corn, sod, tomatoes, citrus, livestock and sugar cane.

If the canal gets too low, pumps that suck water out of the canal won’t be able to lift the irrigation water into the fields. But downstream residents worry – and they know it all too well – if the canal gets too high, the Corps has no choice but to discharge it east into the St. Lucie River.

And that could easily happen with a few weekend rains over the C-44 catchment area.

Run it back

Another option, which happens in dry years when Lake Okeechobee gets low, is for water from C-44 to flow westward back into the lake. According to Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, on May 7, 2021, the level of the C-44 channel was 4.62 meters above sea level. Meanwhile, the level of Lake Okeechobee was at 4.20 meters, or 3 niches higher.

As late as July 2020, when Lake O was 12.7 feet above sea level, the C-44 Channel poured an average of 150 million liters of water per day and more than 1 billion liters in total into the lake.

However, it all came back towards the end of the rainy season when more than 59.3 billion gallons of water flowed east from Lake O and was sent into the St. Lucie River via the St. Lucie Locks.

Dry season?

“We expect the dry season trend to continue so we can absorb some of the small runoff from the event into the lake – we’re talking tenths of a foot on the C-44 channel,” explained Kelly. . “If it rains on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we will have to adjust the channel levels. We can make it without affecting the lake scene.”

But does that mean that algae-laden water flows downstream into the St. Lucie River?

“We’ve certainly seen an increase (in algae in May) and above average algae on the lake. We’ve seen it a lot; we’ve seen photos and videos; we’re 100% following what’s going on. We anticipate a higher level of algae this summer.” , he said. “The hotter, drier, less wind tends to support algae growth. We expect it to be higher than the normal year for algae on the lake. We’ll be recording that and tracking it so we get more feedback from Florida Dept. or Environmental protection on their testing. “

On Monday, Indian RiverKeeper Mike Conner posted on his Facebook page a video of water flowing through the Port Mayaca ports and the C-44 channel. Kelly suggested it was necessary, but “there are no releases taking place in St. Lucie Lock and Dam.”

Caulkins ask

So the Caulkins water farm is taking some of the water from the C-44 canal?

The short answer is no. The long answer is still no.

The water farm is just over 3,200 acres of former citrus land east of Indiantown, surrounded by an embankment. Water pumped from the C-44 into the 36.5 billion gallon reservoir disappears either by evaporation to the air or by leaching into the ground at a rate of about 91 million gallons per day.

SFWMD taxpayers pay the former citrus farm $ 5.5 million a year to store dirty canal water. The farm operator is paid regardless of whether water is stored or not.

The good news is that once the canal reaches 14 feet, Caulkins will start pumping water. The bad news is that if it stays dry, the channel level will not rise. And if it rains too much, discharges to the river can still start.

Keep your own water

What could make it easier for water managers to balance this water level problem? More storage, but not where it has already been suggested.

Perhaps it is time to require farms in the C-44 River Basin to set aside some of their land to store water to meet their own water needs. Palm Beach County enacted a rule in 2000 following a downstream flood following a tropical storm in 1999. Not long after, some of those farms sold their land or ended their leases and moved to St. Lucie County, where no requirements were imposed.

Reducing the farms’ reliance on C-44 as a primary source of irrigation supply would ease the burden on managers.

Of course it is painful. But it is also responsible and smart.

After all, the rain is coming. Whether they start next week or next month, it’s a gamble we’re going to see and smell toxic algae in places we wish we didn’t.

Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoor writer. Receive weekly Outdoors news in your email inbox click here. To communicate with Ed, friend him on Facebook Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or send an email to ed.killer@tcpalm.com.

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