Local leaders fear potential disaster if Lake O’s level is pushed lower

CLEWISTON — Concern is growing around Lake Okeechobee that those pushing for rethinking the 12-to-15.5-foot lake levels that have been the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) guideline for years, fully intend to establish a new low target level of 10.5 feet during the driest part of the year.

Voices are beginning to rise in this debate from Florida’s heartland, away from the coasts, insisting that is a dangerously low baseline and an example of “messing with Mother Nature” that could deal a devastating blow to the economy of all the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner spoke at his board’s meeting Feb. 13 about the previous evening’s forum where public input was heard by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District officials regarding the proposed Lake Okeechobee Operating System Manual (LOSOM) that would replace LORS. He said his fellow commissioner, Emma Byrd, spoke “very eloquently.” Mr. Turner is president of the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon.

He emphatically called for a unified effort by all counties around the lake to speak as one voice and “let the Corps of Engineers hear our concerns that we don’t want to see a 10.5-foot lake be the baseline instead of 12.5 feet.” Mr. Turner cited the pressure from Congressman Brian Mast to end lake releases toward the east coast during the run-up to the wettest months, which Rep. Mast claims resulted last year in a blue-green algae bloom that seriously disrupted the tourist-centered economy of the Atlantic coastal communities.

“I’m going to request that we formally reach out to Palm Beach County, Martin County, Okeechobee County, Glades County and ourselves and we establish a joint workshop, publicly advertised, along with all of the city commissions within those basins — Pahokee, South Bay, Belle Glade, Clewiston, Moore Haven and Okeechobee as well. We need to galvanize because there is strength in those numbers,” Mr. Turner stated.

“This 10.5-foot lake (idea) is garnering a lot of energy, and there’s just simply more people than us that are wanting to eliminate the discharges,” he added. He said he would invite all of the stakeholders along with Rep. Mast, congressional leaders, both of Florida’s senators and others. “They need to hear us. I think we’re all going to be on the same page — the entire lake’s going to be on that page — because we’ve got to protect this water resource.”

He said he would reach out individually but can’t because of the Sunshine Law and his post with the Lake O Coalition, which certainly will be asked to act on the issue.

Martin Marina & Resort manager Ramon Iglesias stepped forward to offer comment also. He commended Mr. Turner on “teaming up” with all of the region’s leaders, cautioning, “But you’ve got to realize that public comment is only through March 31.” He urged County Administrator Jennifer Davis to “start working on it tomorrow, without fail.

“It’s not just farming, it’s tourism, it’s restaurants — it’s going to be devastating to this area with a 10.5-foot lake,” Mr. Iglesias said, “and I hate to say it but the governor has the ear from Brian Mast, and Trump has Ron DeSantis in his corner. I’m afraid that that’s actually going to happen sooner than later.”

He cited some potentially scary numbers about what happens in a drought.

“To have a drought on Lake Okeechobee from time to time, that’s not a bad idea, for a healthier lake. But my concern is when you force the drought, and you mess with Mother Nature, and then you have another drought…”

He said that under the LORS guidelines, “based on a 12.5-foot lake: In 2000, when they started June 1 at 12.5 feet, we hit a 8.97-foot lake that year. So if you give DeSantis and Mast what they want at a 10.5-foot lake, permanently, that puts your lake (in a similar drought) at 6.97. In 2006, we would’ve had a 6.82-foot lake; in 2010, it would’ve been a 7.53-foot lake.”

Commissioner Michael Swindle asked, “In layman’s terms, that means no boat traffic, correct?”

“That means nothing it all,” Mr. Iglesias came back. “That means, it’s not just yachts, it’s no bass boats. There’s going to be no bass, no birds. I mean, it’s going to eradicate Lake Okeechobee. Like I said, there’s a difference between high and low periods throughout time, because Mother Nature … throws it at you, but to force it and keep it at a 10.5-foot lake, is not even an option. And if we don’t speak loudly, like Brian Mast is doing on the coast, we will lose.”

If there were a drought — which conditions were indicating before recent rainstorms — and the lake was at 10.5 feet in, say, April before the rains (usually) come, the “Big Water” of Lake O would become something more like a mudhole, said Mr. Turner, citing a higher rate of evaporation transfer during drier weather with a shallower lake. Navigation would become impossible, irrigation canals could run dry, saltwater would start intruding into estuaries east and west, fish would die. Some plants, including noxious invasives bad for Lake O’s natural ecological rhythm, might find it a breath of new life, while dead plants, killed by either spraying or low water levels and now comprising muck at the bottom, could dry up and result in wildfires inside the Herbert Hoover Dike.

“It’s something that the masses have latched onto and it’s gaining traction, and so I think that we’ve got to galvanize our numbers, no matter what your political persuasion is,” he urged. His fellow Hendry commissioners agreed.

Mr. Turner finished: “I’m talking about creating a conversation that never has occurred — in my knowledge, I don’t know that the lake area ever has galvanized like this — and we start talking about a long-term approach and controlling this conversation a little bit more to make sure that our voice is heard.”

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