Pilot Lake Okeechobee project proposed: Harvest invasives, dredge muck

CLEWISTON — Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner, allied with several other South Florida county leaders, is calling for a pilot project on part of Lake Okeechobee to mimic the successful restoration of Lake Trafford in Collier County.

Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner speaks on behalf of a proposal to clean up Lake Okeechobee much as it’s being done on Lake Trafford near Immokalee. Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker.

As president of the Florida Association of Counties, he stood at the meeting Thursday of the Lake Okeechobee Aquatic Plant Management Interagency Task Force (or ITF) to speak on behalf of the group’s Water Policy Committee, which he said has been very active.

Mr. Turner talked about proposals to implement mechanical harvesting of invasive vegetation more extensively than it has been done, coupled with shallow-water dredging to remove and dispose of accumulated muck.

Commissioner Turner said: “I think that this is trying to take science that we know has been applied at Lake Trafford. We know it’s been applied at Lake Apopka. It’s been done in smaller areas like HOAs (neighborhoods controlled by homeowners associations). Don’t think that I’m so ignorant as to envision a 730-square-mile being demucked, or a 730-square-mile lake having the ability to be tweaked and managed like an HOA does with their pond out front. I get the magnitude of Lake Okeechobee. I’ve been out there a couple of times.”

But he said it seemed to him that “we’re kind of doing the definition of insanity. That peat muck, and all of that vegetation that’s being destroyed, or looped as I like to say, is just piling on top of itself. Dr. (Paul) Gray (of Florida Audubon) and I have had a number of conversations about this.”

Mr. Turner said that boaters on the lake now can “see that nutrient energy getting stirred up out there.”

He said he believed that with “conditions like we have right now, north of Ritta (Island) or extremely east of Ritta, the same thing extremely west of Kreamer, Observation Island. Where do you dial your square in right now? Or your triangle? I don’t know. We use LIDAR. This is a concerted effort with the South Florida Water Management District, DEP, the Corps of Engineers, all of us putting our heads together,” he said.

He was referring to topographical mapping done by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellites in space. Mr. Turner suggested they choose and “look at this one square box … I don’t know if it’s 1 square mile, 20 acres or 200 acres, but these things do need to be vetted … more aggressively in my opinion, and then from there we set up a shallow-water dredging, we blow that nutrient load back onto the area that’s already highpointed.”

He said some might consider it useless since the lake is likely to fill to several feet higher during the summer rainy season and potential tropical weather. He added, however, that “I think you could make an argument about the return that you’re going to get and the volume of (biomaterial) and time that is out there drying, and is not being dispersed into the water column as quickly or as readily to the C-43 or to the St. Lucie.”

He said the Florida Association of Counties (FAC) will meet within the next few weeks, still under his leadership, but that he leaves the president’s chair in June. “We’ve already had one roundtable with Governor DeSantis; we’ve had a bit of an offline conversation with (Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valentine), but we all know that the staff level is where these things are hashed out.”

He asked whether the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists working at Lake O had any staff or intern scientists from Florida’s universities helping with research.

Upon hearing that there are some from the University of Florida and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but not very many, Mr. Turner added: “That’s good to hear. But we as a state are woefully missing the mark on providing these resources from a financial standpoint, and so the FAC is going to take this on. It’s something that we’re making a legislative request to do.

He joked about the president wanting to store more water in Lake Okeechobee when the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs are finished, while Congressman Brian Mast is calling for dropping it to 10.5 feet every year, calling those examples of the confusion about what would be best for the lake and all the people called “stakeholders” in it.

“We’re missing the boat from a science standpoint on this battle out here. We’re not allowing science to drive the discussion.”

He called for more communication among all parties.

“I don’t see why we can’t do some pilot programs out on Lake Okeechobee, shallow-water dredging,” Mr. Turner said. “The technology’s there; it’s easy technology; the contractors are ready to go; and I think we would see an ecological benefit overnight.”

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