Another tragedy for the St. Lucie River could help push state lawmakers to buy sugar industry-owned land south of Lake Okeechobee. From Sanibel to Sewall’s Point, from St. Lucie County to Miami, that’s what river advocates are hoping.
Martin County river warriors scored a small victory when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers temporarily stopped dumping the lake’s excess water into the river after residents found toxic algae — which can harm people, animals and fish — in the lake.
But on Monday, lake water again will be pouring out of the St. Lucie Lock. Water managers, desperate to lower the lake by more than a foot before the rainy season starts June 1, tried to downplay the problems the poisonous algae can cause.
Protesters, who held rallies on Florida’s east and west coasts last week, have another set at Phipps Park near the lock in Stuart on Monday.
Here’s how it played out over the past two weeks.
On Apr. 23, river warriors Kenny Hinkle Jr. and Capt. Mike Conners shot a video of the green algae at Port Mayaca, where lake water enters the St. Lucie Canal and heads for the river. The river warriors contacted Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Sewall’s Point Commissioner Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch. Negron watched the video, then called Col. Alan Dodd, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief.
No officials from the Army Corps or the South Florida Water Management District, who jointly manage the lake, bothered to test the algae until residents documented it.
The video got 10,000 views overnight on Facebook and other social media. Col. Dodd stopped the discharges Apr. 24. That’s a victory, however fleeting.
Tests showed the algae is toxic, and tiny Port Mayaca got more visitors. The Everglades Foundation’s Eric Eikenberg took a look. Katy Lewey’s River Kidz visited, thoughtfully chasing away a little heron whose legs were coated with the poisonous green slime.
On Tuesday, longtime river warrior Mark Perry, head of Florida Oceanographic Society, told Martin County Commissioners the algae bloom is in the canal. With 10-12 daily openings to let boats through the St. Lucie Lock, it inevitably flows into the river.
On Wednesday in Stuart, about 100 people gathered beside the river at Flagler Park to urge water managers not to dump the toxic algae. They also signed a huge poster telling Negron to push for the land buy. Activists sent Gov.
Scott and key lawmakers letters with the same message, signed by 20 elected representatives from cities and counties throughout South Florida, which also have approved formal resolutions supporting it.
The state has the money and an option to buy the land, where lake water could be stored, cleaned and sent south to the Everglades.
Hinkle praised Negron for getting the discharges stopped temporarily, but he’s dismayed that Negron waited until the last minute to try to get $500 million into the state budget for the land buy. Negron has taken campaign money from sugar industry donors for himself and various political action committees he operates.
Martin residents hope for the best, but they now are bracing for the inevitable. Toxic algae in the water can make people and animals sick, causing skin lesions, respiratory problems and flu-like symptoms.
It gets worse. Bans on swimming, fishing and boating. Falling business in bait and tackle shops, boat and kayak rentals, fishing and boat trips. Fewer tourists in hotels and restaurants.
Sick fish. Dead fish. Dead shrimp, dead crabs and a myriad of deaths no one sees of tiny organisms at the bottom of the food chain.
As the threat to the river increases, anger levels rise. Beside a photo of the toxic lake waters, river warrior Gayle Ryan posted on Facebook, “Here’s some water for Gov. Scott. Full of nutrients. Drink it down.”
And pass that cup to state lawmakers, until they all do what needs to be done: Buy the land. Send water south.