If there is one thing constant about the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon’s problems, it is that they are multi-layered and complex. I believe this is one reason it has been so hard to “fix.” If there were just one problem, it would be easier, but there is not one problem, there are many.
So, today I wanted to focus on C-44 basin runoff, again, as it has been in the news a lot, especially the two weeks since I was gone as I heard it really rained and we even got our first named hurricane.
The photo above shows the waters just off of the tip of Sewall’s Point on June 27th, 2014. Disgusting.
The basin map above reminds us of the C-44 basin’s location in southern Martin County. The “basin” is the large area surrounding the C-44 canal in black lines. As we know, this area is largely agricultural and was expanded over the years to drain more land than nature intended.
Through permits with the South Florida Water Management District the agricultural businesses are allowed to use water from the C-44 canal for irrigation when needed, especially during the “dry” season. The Army Corps of Engineers manages the level of the canal mostly for agricultural use; this is an historic relationship. In spite of “best management practices” much of the water used to irrigate their fields, runs back into the canal, over and over again, filled with fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc…This is the untreated, polluted water that goes straight into our rivers.
As we can see looking at the canal map, over the years, the C-44 basin has become tremendous in size in order to drain land for agriculture and development. Millions of gallons of water come off these lands when it rains, as has been the case the past couple of weeks.
This recent photo below by local river activist and fishing guide, Michael Conner, shows what the C-44 basin water looks like when it comes out of the S-80 gates at St Lucie Locks and Dam, the same gates that are used when water is released from Lake Okeechobee when the ACOE opens S-308 at the lake. This can be confusing because usually we associate this type of photo with releases from Lake Okeechobee. S-80 can release just C-44 canal water or “just lake water,” or both lake and C-44 water…
So why haven’t we talked about the C-44 basin until this summer, or seen or very much about it in the newspaper “before?”
Well, it is confusing to the lay person, and I don’t claim to know everything, but I will explain what I can.
Generally, in the past, the ACOE did not usually release the C-44 into the river during the summer…but this summer they are. Why?
Well according the the “Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS),” the document the ACOE uses to manage Lake Okeechobee:
“All alternatives assume back flow from the St Lucie Canal, C-44, to Lake Okeechobee to be allowed to occur at lake stages of 14.50 ft or 0.25 from the bottom of the the lowest non-baseflow regulatory zone, whichever is lower.”
Basically this means that under most circumstances if the lake is under 14.5 feet, which it is now, (13.38), the ACOE will “back flow” C-44 canal runoff water into the lake through S-308, rather than sending it east to the SLR/IRL through S-80. This summer the ACOE has chosen not to do this, so we are getting C-44 basin water released into the SLR/IRL so the water looks gross. In the ACOE’s July 11th, 2014, public periodic scientist call email statement, explaining their choices, it reads:
“The Water Control Plan deliberately allow some flexibility to consider real time and forecasted conditions and decisions made within the guidance provided by the Water Control Plan…for the specific decision not to flow water from the C-44 basin into Lake Okechobee since 12 June 2014, the conditions that we took into consideration were rising lake levels, water supply, remaining duration of the wet season and proximity to the low sub band….the 8 July report from the South Florida Water Management District evaluates the condition of St Lucie Estuary and states “salinity at US1 is within the preferred range for oysters in the mid estuary.”
Hmmm? Obviously the SFWMD’s salinity report was not that of Mark Perry’s at Florida Oceanographic…Let’s read and take a look.
Mark Perry feels the ACOE should be back flowing the C-44 water into the lake. He says:
“According to the Water Control Plan for the Lake the Corps should be opening S-308 and back flowing this local basin runoff into the lake when the lake is below 14 feet and the C-44 is above 14.5 feet but they have chosen to make steady releases from the C-44 basin through S-80 into the St Lucie at near 1000 cfs since June 14. Not so good outlook for the St Lucie Oysters…”
Please view his chart below that shows what has happened to salinity levels since the C-44 has been flowing into the SLR/IRL. (Mind you C-23, and C-24 are also dumping their basin runoff water, but C-44’s basin area is larger.)
On the other hand, friend of Mark Perry, Kevin Henderson, long time advocate for the SLR/IRL and founding member of the St Lucie River Initiative, feels the ACOE is perhaps trying a strategy that will help the St Lucie in the “future.” Kevin states:
“I firmly disagree that the Corps should always run C-44 drainage west until the Lake reaches 14.5. That is the pattern that gets us the most continuous lake and C-44 drainage into the fall, and the the patten that kills oysters…It is not basin runoff that kills the estuary, it’s months of continuous discharges at rates that never let salinity recover. This is why I advocate sending C-44 drainage west only when local salinity could recover for a while, then send it east again and do not let Lake O get high enough to wreck us with longer term discharges…”
I think he’s saying, the ACOE, by not consistantly filling the lake up with C-44 basin water during summer, may be avoiding long term runoff into the SRL/ILR in the future come fall…
Both Mark and Kevin have a point.
My non-scientific perspective?
I think the ACOE was so taken aback by the wrath of the general public last year, the River Warriors, the River Kidz, the River Movement, the Stuart News/media, as well as some politicians, that they will do “almost anything” not to release water from Lake Okeechobee into the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon if they don’t have to.
By letting the C-44 basin water go into the river and not the lake, if a hurricane comes, there is just that much more room in the lake to hold the water so they don’t have to dump here and listen to us scream….
ACOE Jacksonville/Lake O: (http://w3.saj.usace.army.mil/h2o/reports.htm)