Area residents encouraged to voice views on Lake Okeechobee level

CLEWISTON — John Boy Auditorium was packed Monday night with Lake Okeechobee area residents concerned about the U.S. Arny Corps of Engineers plan to write a new regulation schedule for the Big O.

Gov. Ron Desantis and Congressman Brian Mast are lobbying for a lower lake schedule, which would set the minimum level at 10.5 ft., two feet lower than the current schedule, to reduce the risk of freshwater releases to the coastal estuaries during the rainy season.

Many lake area residents object to that plan, due to concerns about water supply and the loss of navigation on the Big O.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said some of the priorities have changed since the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) was adopted in 2008. “The coasts have a lot more people than the counties in the interior,” she said. “It is doubly important to make your voices heard.”

She encouraged those who do not comment at a public meeting to send their written comments by mail or email.

Tim Gysin, project manager for Lake Okeechobee Operating System Manual (LOSOM) effort explained that the Herbert Hoover dike is part of the Central and Southern Florida Project. LOSOM is “a new start, a clean slate,” he said. “This is not an update to the existing schedule.”

“We are not going to be recommending any new infrastructure as part of this effort,” Mr. Gysin explained. “We will be looking at projects already under construction as part of CERP.” Changes in the lake schedule are under discussion now, he said because the rehab on the Herbert Hoover Dike will be complete in 2022. The C-44 and C-43 reservoirs will also be completed within the next five years. In addition, the federal Water Resources Development Act of 2018 called for a review of the lake regulation schedule. LOSOM planning and development is scheduled to be completed by 2022.

Hundreds crowded into the auditorium. Nearly 50 people turned in requests to speak at the Feb. 11 meeting.

“Do not ignore that 95 percent of the water that flows into Lake Okeechobee flows from the north,” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner.

“Using arbitrary numbers for political expediency is not the answer,” she said, urging the corps to base lake schedule decisions on the historical data.

“There are tens of thousands of us in our area vs. the millions who are on the coast,” said Clewiston City Commissioner Kristine Petersen. “We need to be heard. There have been a lot of decisions that have been made along the way, the spraying of the grasses, the septic tanks, the level of the lake.”

She said the farms in the EAA help feed the state and the nation.

“Remember this is where your vegetables come from,” she said.

“People who are lifelong farmers, the people who put their blood, sweat and tears into the Glades need to be heard,” she said.

“We’re concerned about the lives around the lake,” said Hendry County Commissioner Emma Bryd. “We might be little people to you, but we are important … The fishermen are important. The farmers are important,” she said.

“Don’t throw blame. Don’t forget the work that was already done,” she said.

“We live and work directly on Lake Okeechobee,” said Pahokee Mayor Keith W. Babb Jr.
“We are unanimously opposed to the lowering of the lake to 10.5 ft. That would have a devastating negative effect on our community. We wouldn’t be able to get boats in and out of the marina at that level,” he said,

He said Pahokee already suffers from 25 percent unemployment. “If you lower the lake to 10.5 ft., what will happen when a drought comes? The farmers will not be able to draw water to supply their crops. They will have to lay off employees,” he said.

“There are numerous things we seem to be focused on. The primary and principal thing we should be focused on is sitting in these chairs. The lives of the people should be paramount,” said Steve Nolin, president of the Belle Glade Chamber of Commerce.

“Lake levels are everyone’s concern. The integrity of the dike is everyone’s concern, especially to us who live around the lake. That concern should not be driven by algae, red tide, and water discharges that you and I have absolutely no control over.

“We have some of the smartest people in the world and yet they haven’t figured out where the dirty water is coming from,” he said. “Start at the top! Work your way down.”

“Forty-five years ago, I was elected as a county commissioner,” said Philip Rowland. “For 45 years I have been attending meetings about Lake Okeechobee. There are very few times the people have been listened to.

“If the lake schedule is allowed to go to 10.5 ft, and there is a drought, it will go to 6 ft.” he said.

“Then everything will go. We will have salt water intrusion. If that happens, you will lose your Everglades. Once that is gone, you can’t get it back,” he said.

“If we could just slow the flow of water into Lake Okeechobee we wouldn’t be having this discussion today,” said Ramon Iglesias of Martin Marina & Resort.

“A 10-foot lake due to a drought from time to time is healthy for the lake,” he said, but trying to hold the lake to 10.5 ft artificially would be an environmental disaster.

“You will kill the second largest lake in the country to appease population growth on the east and west coasts and the hidden agenda of a few,” said Mr. Iglesias.

“The people south of the lake are sick and tired of being blamed for all of the coastal problems,” he said.

“This lake is truly the liquid heart of our region,” said Elizabeth Ross, speaking for U.S. Sugar. She said U.S. Sugar supports the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

The LOSOM schedule must be designed to ensure the water supply, she said.

Ms. Ross urged them to use science to develop a balanced schedule that meets the needs for water supply as well as reduces harmful releases to the coastal estuaries.

“An issue of lowering the lake eludes the people on the coast,” said J.P. Sasser, of One Florida. “Those very same marinas that complain about the algae will not be able to use the Okeechobee waterway to go from one coast to another. Loss of the Okeechobee Waterway would deplete the local economies by $22 million.

Moore Haven lock and dam.

“Right now, on your (corps) website you are telling people Lake Okeechobee is not navigable,” he said.

He said changes in the lake schedule must include dredging of the navigation channels.

The Okeechobee Waterway has two routes, he continued.

Route one goes from Port Myaca to Moore Haven. Route 2 is the southern route, he said.

Hurricane debris was identified in three locations in route 2. He said Pahokee obtained a $3 million grant to dredge route 2, but the corps would not grant a permit. As a consequence, the grant was lost.

“If the water’s too high, we lose the ecology,” he said. “If the water is too low, it’s not navigable.

If Lake Okeechobee is a septic tank, “it’s Orlando’s you-know-what in the lake,” he added.

“During the Senate Bill 10 debate, they wanted to take our land,” said Janet Taylor, president of Glades Lives Matter. “Now they want to take our water, which makes no sense,” She noted West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami also depend on the lake for their water supply.

“Politics will make you do things wrong every single time,” said Ardis Hammock. “In Florida, we need a change to Lake Okeechobee that is done right. Science needs to drive us in this process and not radical decisions that somebody has put out as a sound bite.

10.5 ft. on Lake Okeechobee is an arbitrary phrase that someone has thrown out.”

“Farmers need a consistent supply of water,” said Carl Perry. “When it gets to 8 feet, we are done. We can’t get any more water. We can’t wait a month for water. Our crop is dead by that time,” he said.

“When this water is down to 10 ft., there is nothing you can do on it. Every one of the marinas around the lake will be decimated,” said Captain Doug Harris. “I’d say 12.5 ft. to 14.5 ft. is perfect,” he said.

“A 10 ft. lake schedule makes the lake unusable,” said angler Scott Martin. “It seems that somebody who is supporting that would like to kill tourism around Lake Okeechobee, and also kill farming.” He said decisions about lake levels should be based on how to restore and maintain the submerged aquatic vegetation.

“That’s a giant fish tank and it has no filter,” he said. “A high lake, a 16 or 17 ft., lake, will kill the lake.”

“This is about getting the water right for all of us,” said Judy Sanchez of U.S. Sugar. “There are so many areas of South Florida that depend on Lake Okeechobee.”

“I’m angry. I’m frustrated, and I don’t know what to tell you,” said Mary Ann Martin.

She said over the past 40 years she has seen the decline in the environmental health of the lake due to governmental decisions.

“We have let agencies come in to our lake and they poisoned it. They have sprayed chemicals. They have taken the key filtration system of this lake, and it’s gone.

“Anything that can grow in this lake is good. It’s the filtration system that we need,” she said. “Everybody sits around and talks about it. Nothing gets done. And I’m sick of it.

“Everybody around this lake has got to stand up and say ‘we’ve had enough! Stop it!’”

Clayton Humphries said he lives in St. Lucie county, but grew up in Okeechobee.

“If we are going to solve this, we have to work with the coastal communities,” he said. “It’s not just about our own communities. It’s about them too. Let’s make it known we aren’t the problem. Let’s make it known water is coming from Orlando. “This is our chance to stand here together, the chance to stand as a whole state, one Florida.

“I started my day at a meeting with coastal communities where Brian Mast encouraged coastal communities to fight for 10.5 ft.,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation.

“We have some problems, and a lot of them are political,” she said.

She said it was frustrating to hear people “rallying around 10.5 ft.” when I know my neighbors have problems with salt water intrusion in their wells when we get that lake level too low.

She urged lake area residents to “get out of your comfort zone” and attend meetings on the coast.

“This is a modified system. It was designed to achieve a number of complicated outcomes,” said Mitch Hutchcraft, of King Ranch (with holdings in Lee, Hendry, Martin and Palm Beach counties.).

“Remember the lake is the subject of decades of science,” he said. He encouraged the corps to use the decades of scientific data to make the best decision for all of South Florida.

Steve Smith of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association said his organization supports a balanced approach based on science, and not emotion or politics.

The Corps plans additional public meetings about LOSOM:
• Stuart: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 1 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., in Indian River State College’s Clare and Gladys Wolf High-Technology Center, 2400 S.E. Salerno Road, Stuart, FL 34997;
• Broward County: Tuesday, Feb. 26, place and time to be announced:
• West Palm Beach: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 6 to 8 p.m. in the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Auditorium, 3301 Gun Club Road, West Palm Beach, FL 33406;
• Miami Gardens: Thursday, Feb. 28, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the North Dade Regional Library. 2455 N.W. 183rd St., Miami Gardens, FL 33056.

The corps believes this effort will benefit significantly from public involvement and encourages participation in the NEPA scoping process. The corps welcomes your views, comments, concerns, suggestions and solutions. Scoping comments may be provided during public meetings, via email or by mail.

The public comment period ends on March 31. Those who cannot attend one of the meetings or do not wish to comment in a public meeting are encouraged to send in written comments.

• Submit comments by email to: LakeOComments@usace.army.mil.
• Submit comments by mail to: Dr. Ann Hodgson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, P.O. Box 4970, Jacksonville, FL 32232-0019.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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