Watershed project to improve water quality

OKEECHOBEE — The Lake Okeechobee watershed project could be the latest solution for keeping pollutants and excess nutrients out of the lake.

The nine-county Lake Okeechobee Coalition Friday learned the study, which will begin in the next few months, will look for new ways to help store and treat water before it reaches Lake Okeechobee. (See the 2011 update here.)

Okeechobee County could see another round of state land purchases, although it is way too early to determine how many acres might be used.

The legislature this year, and Governor Rick Scott this week, signed into law the Legacy Florida Bill that would fund $200 million per year to find solutions to lessen the releases of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the estuaries.

Lesley Bertolotti was named the project manager for South Florida Water Management. She said the project will include Okeechobee, Glades, Highlands and Martin Counties. She said aquifer storage and recovery on district-owned lands north of the lake will be included.

In other actions at Friday’s meeting, the coalition added the Kissimmee River to the areas they are concerned about at the request of Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb.

Glades County Commissioner Paul Beck said 25 jobs will be lost when South Florida Water Management purchases 2,000 acres of sugar cane from A. Duda and Sons.

“We lose jobs and we lose tax money out in the sticks,” he said.

Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner said the lake water is dirty and turbid but fishing remains strong.

“I think the lake is in a good spot,” he said. “We all get a little nervous when hurricane season comes.”

Highlands County Commissioner Jack Ritchie said blue green algae has caused the deaths of eagles in Florida and Georgia and could serve as a warning to this area.

The governing board of SFWMD will meet in Fort Myers on Thursday, June 9.
Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard said the St. Lucie River is a mess.

“It’s a disaster in our estuaries,” he said. “This year might be worse than any year we can remember.”

Commissioner Heard said more must be done to restore the health of the estuaries. She emphasized the use of funds from Amendment One to find more permanent solutions.

Commissioner Margaret Helton said all of the fresh water entering the estuaries is not coming from the lake releases. She said the canals send a lot of water to the east coast.

“Fishing has been phenomenal on this side of the lake,” she said.

Commissioner Grieb said they are working on canals that feed into Lake Toho to try and cut down on pollutants.

A 13-day expedition from Orange County to Okeechobee is scheduled in 2017.

An hour-long documentary was filmed of the tour when it took place in 2007.

Television stations from Tampa and Orlando filmed the journey which gave tremendous publicity to progress being made on the Kissimmee River Restoration.

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay of Palm Beach County said the repairs of the Herbert Hoover Dike must remain the top priority of this group.

“We must keep pressure on Washington. We can’t get caught up in rhetoric and unrealistic solutions,” she said.

Commissioner McKinlay and Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater took a helicopter tour of the entire basin. She encouraged local government to do more. Sewer plants, golf courses, canal clean ups, and agriculture must also do more, she argued.

Frannie Hutchinson of St. Lucie County saluted the state legislature for the legacy bill which provides $200 million per year for water projects north of the lake.

Jim Jeffords of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported rainfalls were 200 percent above normal in December. Rainfall was 500 percent above normal in January. Lake Okeechobee reached the highest level in 10 years, 16.4 feet on February 8. The lake reached 13.64 feet on May 16. Heavy rains pushed the level by 3/4 of a foot in late May. Releases today are 5,800 cubic feet per second to the estuaries. Rain could be a factor in the next week with seven inches of rain possible in parts of the district. A total of 1.7 million acre feet have been released from the lake since Nov. 1, 2015.

The lake level of 14.39 feet recorded on June 1 is the highest since 2005 for the start of the hurricane season.

C-44 Reservoir

C-44 Reservoir

Lee County continued to urge the corps to send more water south of Lake Okeechobee. Public comments will be taken on an environmental impact study on the dam safety modification report for the dike.

Alan Shirkey of the Engineering and Construction Bureau of SWWMD reported the C-44 storm water treatment facility near Indiantown will be complete in the fall of 2017. The reservoir on the site will be completed sometime in 2020. He also reported progress on the C-43 reservoir and storm water treatment area in Hendry County.

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