Commissioners seek ways to improve water quality

OKEECHOBEE — Lake Okeechobee discharges are in the news, and water quality issues are high on county leaders’ list for discussion a future Legislative Delegation meeting.

High on that list is Lake Okeechobee.

At the Thursday meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, board members vented frustration at the unfair, negative depiction of Lake Okeechobee by television media, and also looked for ways the county can help improve water quality.

“We are getting a lot of bad press over here and it is hurting our businesses,” said Commissioner Terry Burroughs.

“That lake is not sick,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “It’s producing more fish than it has in 30 years.”

The county and the chamber of commerce  are trying to arrange a media visit to tour the lake and meet with local residents.

“They’re quick to throw the blame and point west,” said Commissioner Culpepper.

He said the people on the coast are refusing to accept their part in creating the environmental problems that contribute to the algal blooms.

“People overbuilt on those lagoons because waterfront property is so valuable,” he said.

“In 2014 there were no releases from that lake and they still have algal blooms,” he pointed out.

“The way to fix it is to put in municipal water and sewer systems and get these homes off septic tanks.

“When you go up the coast, they’ve got all kinds of pictures of feces damaging the reefs. That’s not coming from Lake Okeechobee,” he said.

“We are taking all of the stuff out of Orlando into the Chain of Lakes,” he said.

“If you don’t think they are using fertilizer up there, just walk through the theme parks,” Commissioner Culpepper said.

“There’s all kind of talk about moving water south,” said Chairman Irby.

“There is no way for it to flow south.

“You can’t get it past the dam at Alligator Alley,” he said.

Mr. Irby said the state needs to spend the available money more effectively instead of spreading it out “so everybody gets a piece.

“Freshwater will cause problems with salinity even if it’s perfectly clean,” said Mr. Irby.

“Collectively we are part of the problem because we look out for our local issues,” he said.

Ways to help

County commissioners are looking for ways for the county to be part of the solution.

Water quality is an issue that everyone in Florida should be concerned about, said Commissioner Burroughs.

“The septic tank issue, we can do something about,” he said. “Let’s start with that.”

“We need to look at what we can do here to take people off septic tanks who are close to bodies of water such as the Rim Canal and Taylor Creek,” said he said. “We need to start now.”

The Okeechobee Utility Authority has done a lot of work and planning already for being able to move people off of septic to a wastewater treatment system, said Commission Chairman Frank Irby,

“The difficulty has been funding it,” he said.

About 1,600 homes in the Taylor Creek/Treasure Island area are on septic tanks, he said. In the entire county, there are about 12,000 septic tanks, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Due to the algal blooms in the Indian River Lagoon basin, the state is recognizing the need to get homes near waterways off septic tanks, and is considering providing state funding to help.

“We need to have a project or a plan ready in order to start soliciting for those dollars when they become available,” Mr. Burroughs said.

Meeting planned

The South Florida Management District will hold a meeting about water quality, quantity and timing of releases at the SFWMD office in Okeechobee on Tuesday, July 26, at 6 p.m. with a presentation at 7 p.m.

The Okeechobee County Commission will begin workshops on the Fiscal Year 2016/2017 county budget next week.

The board will set the tentative millage for TRIM notices and determine preliminary assessment rates for Fire, EMS and Solid Waste at their July 28 board meeting.

At their Thursday meeting, the commissioners set the first public hearing for the adoption of the FY16/17 millage rates and budget on Sept. 13 at 5:01 p.m.; and the second public hearing on Sept. 22 at 5:01 p.m. By statute, the hearings must be held after 5 p.m.

“For everyone who would like to participate in county business, this is a great opportunity,” said Chairman Irby.

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