Lake area counties work toward common goals

Officials from the five counties that surround Lake Okeechobee met Tuesday to find common ground and start the work to come up with unified message about the future of Lake Okeechobee.

Commissioners from Martin, Hendry, Glades, Palm Beach and Okeechobee counties gathered in the Okeechobee High School Lecture Hall on May 7. A crowd of about 350 people from all around the lake filled the lecture hall for a two-and-a-half-hour discussion hailed as the start of a larger effort to bring everyone together to work for a common goal.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of working on a new Lake Okeechobee System Operation Manual (LOSOM), which will replace the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) when repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are complete in 2022. LORS tries to keep the lake no lower than 12.5 feet and no higher than 15.5 feet (above sea level).

The lake level plan is a balancing act. Florida Audubon has warned that levels above 15.5 feet are harmful to the lake’s marshes, which provide habitat for fish and wildlife and also act as the lake’s natural filter system. Palm Beach County officials have expressed concern that water levels falling too low could mean water shortages not only for farmers but also for the urban communities of Southeast Florida.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Stuart has publicly advocated lowering the lake to 10.5 feet by the end of the dry season (May 31) to assure more water storage capacity at the start of the wet season. Others, more concerned with water supply, have advocated for high levels above 15.5 feet.

Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner said that initially, his goal for the meeting was a joint resolution. “I found out you can’t do it because it’s illegal,” he explained. However, each individual board can pass its own resolution.

Mr. Turner said it’s important for all of the counties to share the same message with our federal partners.

“We need to stop the rhetoric. Let’s quit blaming each other,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.

“We want a cleaner lake, cleaner estuaries and a cleaner river. I hope this opens up the door for more friendly conversations on how to get to that end result.”

“It’s as much Walt Disney’s fault as it is historic farming practices from 40 years ago. Every one of us who owns a home plays a part.”

The commissioners discussed asking county staffs to work together. They also discussed having more meetings that include all of the counties. Martin County commissioners offered to host the next meeting.

For more about the issues discussed at the May 7 multi-county meeting, see the May 15 edition of the Lake Okeechobee News.

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