Low lake hurting local businesses

OKEECHOBEE — The level of Lake Okeechobee was once again a topic of discussion at the meeting of the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon held Friday at the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse.

Glades Commissioner Weston Pryor said on his way to the meeting, he stopped at a bait shop in Lakeport where he met a distraught business owner. On a Friday morning, in the middle of summer, there were no other customers in the bait shop.

“He said, ‘My business is down 80 percent from last month.’ This water level is killing these local people,” said Commissioner Pryor. “It’s killing the economy in these local communities.

“These people are out here struggling to make a living to feed their families,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to figure out some of these problems.”

Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann said he was happy to report the water quality conditions in the Caloosahatchee Estuary are good.

“This time last year we were experiencing probably the worst outbreak of blue green algae in the Caloosahatchee River,” he said. It was a disaster compounded with one of the worst outbreaks of red tide, Commissioner Mann added.

“Right now, things are all well,” he said.

“Commissioner Mann, I want to thank you for the compliment on the clean water that’s coming from Lake Okeechobee,” said Okeechobee County Commissioner David Hazellief. “Unfortunately, we don’t have much to share right now.”

Since October, the corps has released water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River for the benefit of the river, to maintain the target salinity in the estuaries. For most of the dry season, the releases were 800 to 1,000 cubic feet per second, as measured at the Franklin Lock. Currently the releases are 450 cfs.

Commissioner Hazellief said the current low lake levels are hurting a lot of local businesses. Due to the low lake level, fewer people are coming to fish in the lake, he said. “It’s hurting us a lot.”

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said the low lake level is a safety concern.
“At the Pahokee Marina, we have a large vessel there, a floating amphitheater. Currently there is no hurricane plan for that vessel,” she said.

“If the lake levels are as low as they are now and a storm comes, we have no way to get that vessel out.”

If it can’t be moved from the marina, it could be destroyed by a hurricane, she said.

“This time of year, the lake level is really dependent on the amount of rainfall we are getting and the evapotranspiration,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It is far less dependent on the amount of releases.” (Evapotranspiration is how water is transferred to the atmosphere, either by evaporation or by transpiration from plants.)

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