STUART, Fla. (AP) — Lawmakers say a southwest Florida county should be added to the state of emergency declared over an algae bloom on the Atlantic coast.
Gov. Rick Scott directed state and local authorities to fast-track water storage projects to help reduce the algae’s spread in waterways in Martin and St. Lucie counties.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers and Reps. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers and Ray Rodrigues of Estero issued a joint statement Thursday asking Scott to include Lee County as well.
The three Republicans say Scott’s declaration draws attention to water quality issues also affecting the Caloosahatchee River.
The lawmakers also have asked federal authorities that oversee Lake Okeechobee to immediately stop freshwater releases that coastal communities blame for algae blooms and other environmental damage.
The blue-green algae is the latest contaminant in yearslong arguments over water flowing from Lake Okeechobee, which is critical to South Florida’s water supply and flood control systems.
The Martin County Commission is inviting the president to view deteriorating water conditions that local officials blame on freshwater being released from the lake, according to a statement released Wednesday.
“It’s gagging,” Commissioner Sarah Heard told The Palm Beach Post. “It’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever smelled.”
Beaches have been closed along the Treasure Coast shoreline, the St. Lucie River and other bodies of water in the county.
“I had to call a couple customers and say, ‘You can’t go to the beach,'” said Irene Gomes, owner of the Driftwood Motel in Jensen Beach.
Gov. Rick Scott has directed state and local authorities to fast-track water storage projects that could help reduce the algae’s spread along the St. Lucie River and other waterways in Martin and St. Lucie counties. Both of Florida’s senators plan to visit the area this week.
Critics blame pollutants from Lake Okeechobee, but local stormwater runoff and septic tanks also fuel algae blooms, as has happened in past years when there were no releases, according to a statement from the South Florida Water Management District.
The district’s executive director, Peter Antonacci, told TCPalm.com that per the governor’s executive order, lakes north of Lake Okeechobee will start holding back about 20 billion gallons of water that would otherwise flow south and contribute to the releases.
Lake Okeechobee is the largest in Florida and the second largest body of freshwater in the contiguous United States. It’s surrounded by an aging, earthen dike that’s prone to erosion and considered one of the country’s most at-risk for imminent failure.
Flooding around the lake after a major hurricane in 1928 killed at least 2,500 people in surrounding communities of mostly poor, black farmworkers. It inspired the storm central to Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
To reduce the risk of a breach in the dike built after that hurricane, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tries to keep water levels in the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level. Freshwater is released east and west of the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
Scott has criticized the Obama Administration and the corps for the discharges that local officials say are ruining coastal estuaries. Though water managers are working to direct more water south of Lake Okeechobee into the parched Everglades, federal regulations, conservation mandates and stalled restoration projects complicate those efforts.
“We’re always looking for a better solution,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, told the Post on Wednesday.
Martin County officials want the locks closed between Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River and a federal emergency declared to address potential hazards to public health and the local economy.
Murky waters on southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast also are being blamed on the lake’s discharges. Fort Myers fisherman Kwame Eaddy said the waters off Sanibel Island look “like motor oil,” WBBH-TV reported.