Anglers blame chemical spraying for barren waters

CLEWISTON — Dennis Lee of Lakeport wanted to tell members of the Lake O Aquatic Plant Management task force a few things about what the herbicide spraying on the lake and elsewhere in Florida has done to the fisheries that depend on aquatic plants.

Having lived in that tiny anglers’ enclave on the western shore since 2011, he told the assembled officials of the several private and public, state and federal entities that make up the Interagency Task Force (ITF) on Thursday, May 30, at the corps office in Clewiston: “I’m retired. I love to fish. I’ve fished all my life. I’ve guided for 16 years and was an airboat captain giving tours in the wetlands for five years. I know how to read the water… That’s what fishermen do. We stand in our boat and we look down all day and we see reality.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Dennis Lee of Lakeport read excerpts from a fellow fisherman’s 1996 letter to punctuate his points about Lake Okeechobee’s current conditions: “I know how to read the water. Yeah, I’m mad. I’m here today because it’s my civic duty to be here.”

“I’m here today because it’s my civic duty… All you all in this room, you’re not the problem. The problem is way up the line; corruption is the problem. You all are doing what you’re told to do, but there’s a God, and he sees everything. We’re stewards of what God has created and given us to live in.”

He said he has lived on and fished the St. Johns River’s length, “from Palatka all the way down to where it starts south of Melbourne. There ain’t a blade of habitat for a fish to be found!” Mr. Lee practically shouted. “I’ve seen native pencil reeds, buggy whips, Kissimmee grass — I’ve seen it all sprayed by Applied Aquatics. Natural vegetation, natural filter.

“Listen, there was cows, there was ranches, there was people, all this stuff back when people could go to Lake Okeechobee and drink the water! I know people that grew up on this lake, and when they got thirsty, they took a drink.” Mr. Lee gestured toward Phillip Roland, who’s 78 and served many years on the Clewiston City Commission and the Hendry County Board. He nodded his agreement.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Billy Walker, a Buckhead Ridge resident and angler, reports widespread stretches of burned vegetation and that “all of the shallow water areas from the Pass going in toward the edge of the lake, there’s about 4 inches of water now, is totally littered with dead, decaying black matter.”

“We’ve got dead, dying fisheries. But that’s only part of it that makes me mad,” Mr. Lee continued. “The other part is, there are people, human beings, being put in jeopardy, their health, because they’re drinking this nasty water!”

He cited statistics from a fisherman’s letter in 1996 about how much chemical herbicide was being sprayed back then, which he quoted: “The people of South Florida need to be made aware of the assault by chemical spraying on our water supply and our ecosystem.”

Throwing out those numbers, “a total of 9,153 gallons” in 1995 and ’96 alone, and “you can quadruple, multiply this by how many times. This man saw what was happening years ago. He’s still alive by the way, 88 years old, and he still fishes,” Mr. Lee went on. “Pure chemical put into our drinking water.”

He had to cram in one more point, though, before ITF Chairwoman Jessica Fair of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Clewiston office stopped him to let others speak.

“When floating plants are sprayed and killed, the nutrients in these plants go back to the water body. This adds to the nutrient load. This dying muck adds to the nutrient loading! The green algae blooms that are making people sick in Fort Myers and off the Caloosahatchee — the reason Brian Mast is hollering so loud, and I don’t blame him — is all directly related to chemical assaulting of the State of Florida’s waterways statewide!

“When Applied Aquatics was formed, its job was to keep the boat ramp clear. And it’s gone to acting like a group of hyacinths or water lilies or hydrilla is fixin’ to take over!”

Mr. Roland spoke briefly. “I will echo everything Dennis has said. I’ve said this for years,” he stated, remembering “back when there were only two or four boats spraying on the whole lake … back in the 1980s and ’90s, we were just starting to feel the hurt of the spraying. (That) is when it all started to happen, and fast-forward to now and you’ve got 20 boats on the lake, that put how much spray in the water, and how much junk goes to the bottom of the lake? And you have literally ruined the bedding areas for fish. The damn shallow water is not the waterway … and how did it spread to the whole damn lake?

“You just … you are absolutely, and accept this, you are killing the lake, and I don’t blame the people on each coast. … This is pathetic.”

Billy Locker, a Buckhead Ridge resident for 29 years, stood up to put in his two cents. “It’s hard to follow up to what Dennis has said here today, and Mr. Roland over there … they’ve got a lot more experience in these things.” But he wanted to tell of a very recent airboat ride into the deeper parts of the lake from the western edges.

“All the shallow water areas from the pasture going in toward the edge of the lake — there’s about 4 inches of water now — is totally littered with dead, decaying black matter. And although we found some sort of fish beds — I think they were perch — I didn’t really see any shellcracker beds, brim beds from Okee-Tantie through the Pass area, New Pearce Canal, Old Pearce Canal, and all the way to Tin House and Indian Prairie. We couldn’t find any.

“Once you got to the first grass line on the edge of the lake, once you got into a foot-and-a-half of water, it was the color of this table (mud brown)… Now, there are a lotta reasons for the quality of the water — not just one, not just chemical spraying — but as Dennis said, that whole area is wiped out. There’s just nothing there.”

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