An official from the Army Corps of Engineers confirmed this week what many people have known for years: The Corps has been dumping toxic water from Lake Okeechobee into local estuaries without warning the public.
This past Wednesday, Republican Congressman Brian Mast questioned Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon of the Army Corps regarding the diversion of water containing cyanobacteria from Lake Okeechobee into estuaries on Florida's east and west coasts, as first reported by Florida Politics.
"Has the Army Corps of Engineers transferred toxic water from Lake Okeechobee to the east through the C-44 [canal] into the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon and to the west through the Caloosahatchee River?" Mast asked Spellmon during a meeting of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Spellmon then admitted that the Army Corps has been dumping water into these estuaries from the lake and that the agency was aware the water contained "harmful algae blooms" and was "toxic."
This marks the first time the Corps has openly disclosed its actions after years of dumping without telling residents in Port St. Lucie, Melbourne, or Fort Myers. After the meeting, Mast's office issued a news release stating, "[Now] that the Army Corps acknowledges that the water they are discharging is toxic, they cannot continue to willfully and knowingly poison our community."
Florida's estuaries are transitional zones where salt water and fresh water meet to create some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. The dumping of cyanobacteria — also known as blue-green algae, the same kind that has rocked Tampa Bay and parts of the Gulf of Mexico — can have terrible effects on those ecosystems and, in turn, harm local industries.
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Michael Grunwald, a reporter for Politico and the author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, tells New Times the government has been doing this for years, with partially good reason.
"Back in 1928, a major hurricane hit an already full Lake Okeechobee and burst the dikes, killing thousands of people," Grunwald says. "Since then, the government diverts water during the wet season to prevent another event like that from happening."
Despite the good intentions, Grunwald says that doesn't excuse the Army Corps from dumping the water into these "delicate" ecosystems without notice. He says projects such as the Everglades Restoration Program will help deal with Florida's toxic water problem in the long run — if any building actually gets off the ground.
This story has been updated to reflect that thousands, not hundreds, of people died in the 1928 hurricane.