Alliance still fighting Lake O misinformation

CLEWISTON — The Lake Okeechobee Alliance marked the third anniversary of its first rally and founding Nov. 5, and its president, Julia du Plooy, said while the group’s mission and tactics have morphed slightly, its prime goal is the same.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Lake O Alliance
From left, Ardis Hall Hammock, Janet Taylor and Keith Wedgworth, wife Amanda and their two children at the first rally.

It’s always been about combating misinformation and malicious attacks on the agricultural interests and business stakeholders surrounding the lake, she said, coming from other groups purportedly concerned about the environment whose motives appear to be muddier and dirtier than they like their water.

The alliance never really aimed to be a lobbying presence in Tallahassee, as much as a close partnership among the Glades region’s business interests who are weary of being blamed for water quality troubles on the coasts. “Glades region” means not only Glades and Hendry counties but the Glades agricultural regions of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties with their sprawling farms hugging the original Everglades.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Lake O Alliance
Frankie Barnes of Clewiston points out a spot on the Lake Okeechobee map drawn on a Lake O Alliance banner at the group’s first rally.

While they’re not necessarily lobbyists, Ms. du Plooy said, “I think we’re pretty proud, maybe not of meetings or rallies that we hold like we originally hoped … but we’ve been semi-successful on social media. The goal of our organization has always been to just get facts out there about ultimately what is it (water quality) affecting? Commerce and sustainability for businesses around the lake, and that essentially keeps coming back to farmers under attack for water quality issues and all this misinformation that’s out there.

“And our businesses and residents and anybody in the community needs to be armed with proper information about what is affecting water quality, and it’s not farmers.”

To do that, the admins of the alliance’s page on Facebook keep up on all of the news and commentary about water quality in Lake O, local waterways and coastal waters, and “do post every day. We check out … what the other organizations who pretty much just attack people in the Glades are talking about, and we kind of try to make sense of all of that and put it out for our followers.”

So there haven’t been many other rallies since that first one three years ago, on Nov. 5, 2016, where they all created a banner, shared food and fellowship, and listened to local business people, leaders, concerned former local politicians and others as they shaped their message.

Ms. du Plooy remembered how one young participant pointedly summed up their concerns, saying, “To outsiders we out in the Glades live in the middle of nowhere, but to us, this is the middle of everywhere.”

The alliance often uses the hashtags #LoveLakeO, #WeAreTheGlades, #SaveTheGlades and #SaveOurFarms in its communications to spread the word.

They’ve gone from opposing Senate Bill 10, which called for the construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, to living with it as the law, but now they’re more vocally advocating the viewpoint that Lake O itself is not the main source of excess nutrients causing coastal waterway and Southeast Florida coastal algae blooms, red tide along the Gulf of Mexico coast, coral bleaching and deterioration in the Florida Keys or fisheries depletion in Florida Bay.

The Lake O Alliance has been especially vocal and vehement about the overlooked (ignored?) culprits: septic tank leakage, water treatment failures, sewage discharges and the sheer amount of polluted runoff and drainage from the Historic Everglades watershed that originates far to the north of Lake Okeechobee.

“If you look at, again, these groups who are really lobbying in Tallahassee, blaming farmers and (saying) ‘Send the Water South’ and ‘Fertilizers are all to blame,’ they never cover other nutrients that are entering our waterways, and a lot of that is sewage spills.

“I was just reading this morning,” Ms. du Plooy continued, “about Tampa Bay officials confirming 20 million gallons of sewage has seeped into the aquifer from their water management companies.” She said such facts are disregarded by organizations such as Captains for Clean Water, “who are saying, you know, we need to get rid of Big Sugar and Big Ag, and they’re not even looking in their own back yard. So that’s the reason why we’ve been focusing on some of that.”

The recurrence of red tide and fish kills along Southwest Florida waterways and beaches this year have clearly not been due to Lake O discharges, contended Ms. du Plooy. “There haven’t been any major discharges from Lake Okeechobee since I think March, and so that does really point to local pollution and nutrient sources that are feeding this red tide and making waterways on the Gulf Coast just not what they should be.”

The alliance has aligned itself with Anglers for Lake O in calling for a change in course.

“Ramon (Iglesias) and the fishing community, these guys are on the lake daily, and they’re seeing all of the issues that are happening day-to-day, whether it be overspraying the invasive plants or the importance of having storage projects completed north of the lake.

“The big push for us is storage north, because 98 percent of the nutrients in the water that is entering the lake, it’s (from) the headwaters of the Historic Everglades. We really need people to focus on that and push for that because right now, there’s again discussions of these other environmental groups behind the scenes trying to derail those northern water storage projects,” she said.

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