| Palm Beach Post
An experiment to slow ecological Armageddon in the Lake Worth Lagoon was started in 2007 when thousands of pounds of licorice-colored goo was scraped from the depths of the C-51 canal to create a slime trap.
The 15-foot deep gash was designed to collect sediment in runoff traveling from as far as Wellington and Lake Okeechobee before it could be vomited into the man-made estuary, choking off sunlight from paddle grass and slathering oysters in muck.
Then the pilot project – the only one of its kind in South Florida – was largely forgotten.
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An agreement between the South Florida Water Management District, City of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County called for regular maintenance of the trap, but it was unclear what that meant, district officials said.
And while periodic measurements of muck depth have been made, there have been few studies of the trap’s effectiveness even as 18 trillion gallons of Lake Okeechobee water flowed to the lagoon in 2016. Algae infected the lagoon that year, covering Summa Beach along the Intracoastal in West Palm Beach and temporarily closing Peanut Island near the July Fourth weekend.
But next month, the water management district plans to complete a study of how much sediment is collected by the trap compared to how much still flows to the beleaguered lagoon and whether it’s worth the $2 million it would cost to redredge the trap to its original 2007 capacity of 100,000 cubic yards.
In its 13 years of operation, the trap has collected 39,000 cubic yards of sediment, but there is no estimate of the annual volume of sediment that still reaches the Lake Worth Lagoon.
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Jennifer Reynolds, the district’s director of ecosystem restoration, said there also is a concern that the muck trap may be contributing sediment to the lagoon when there are high flows, such as during a storm or when water needs to be released for flood prevention.
“We really seriously need to make the decision on whether it’s worth dredging it or not,” said Jose Otero, a section administrator for the water management district who is overseeing the sediment study. “We haven’t found any previous assessments. Because it has such a long history, it’s had many project managers.”
Palm Beach County environmentalists and lagoon managers are eager to see the results and to have more attention paid to the 21-mile long waterway that can be overshadowed by its northern cousins – the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee.
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The St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries bear the brunt of damage when a swollen Lake Okeechobee needs to release water, but stormwater from 30 municipalities and a 300,000 acre watershed drain into the Lake Worth Lagoon.
This year there have been no Lake Okeechobee releases into the brackish lagoon, but 61,700-acre-feet of lake water reached the lagoon between 2017 and 2019. Releases have been as high as 147,100 acre feet in the hurricane-heavy year of 2005.
“I don’t think the impacts of the Lake Okeechobee discharges on the lagoon are fully understood or being addressed,” said Everglades Law Center Executive Director Lisa Interlandi. “When the water does come, it destroys a lot of the progress we made in the years it didn’t come.”
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The lagoon near where the C-51 discharges at the border of West Palm Beach and Lake Worth may never be the icy blue color of the water on an incoming tide at Peanut Island, but it shouldn’t look like “Yoo Hoo,” Interlandi said.
Interlandi spoke at a June water management district meeting asking that the lagoon be included in a $1.03 million study of Lake Okeechobee sediment transport to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. It was not.
Neither is the Lake Worth Lagoon part of the monthly ecological conditions report given to the governing board of the district. The report covers the oyster health and salinity levels in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries as well as the algae conditions and water levels in Lake Okeechobee.
“What we’ve been asking for recently is just be on a level playing field because the Lake Worth Lagoon is a special and remarkable resource,” said Deborah Drum, the director of Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management. “We don’t enjoy the same sophisticated understanding of the relationship between salinity and freshwater as the other estuaries.”
The lagoon was once a freshwater body
Until the mid-1800s, the Lake Worth Lagoon was a freshwater body, supplied primarily with water through ground seepage.
The Lake Worth Inlet, also called the Palm Beach Inlet, was first cut in the mid-19th century to open the lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1918, the inlet was stabilized and the channel widened and deepened to benefit the Port of Palm Beach.
In 1925-27 the Boynton Inlet, or South Lake Worth Inlet, was created.
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Tens of millions of dollars have flowed to restoration efforts in the past two decades for the lagoon, and in 2008, the Lake Worth Lagoon Initiative was created to help consolidate those projects.
Accomplishments have included more than 42 acres of new and improved habitat just since 2014, such as the Snook and Tarpon Cove islands, restoring of oyster beds, sea grasses and mangroves, and the construction of artificial reefs.
The lagoon would have gotten another boost with a $150-million bond to support environmental projects that Palm Beach County voters were tentatively scheduled to vote on this year. That bond was delayed, however, by the coronavirus.
“I feel like the South Florida Water Management District is doing a better job and is more interested in local issues,” said Karen Marcus, president of Sustainable Palm Beach County. “Lake Worth Lagoon doesn’t get the same attention, maybe because we haven’t gotten to a crisis yet, but we are moving in that direction.”
One reason for a piqued interest by the district is that governing board member Jay Steinle, who was appointed in March 2019 after Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the previous board to resign, lives on the lagoon.
The lagoon can’t return to its natural state, a time before inlets were dug and runoff was funneled its way, but environmentalists hope to stitch together an ecosystem with what’s there now – one seagrass bed at a time.