Slow the flow. Let it grow. Protect Lake O; Lake Okeechobee area residents fight for clean water

CLEWISTON — A rally planned by coastal residents to protest releases from Lake Okeechobee on Saturday took a sweet turn when lake area residents turned out to greet the coastal visitors and asked them to join in the fight to save Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

Fishermen and others concerned about water issues traveled in caravans from the east and west coasts on Saturday, meeting in Clewiston at the city’s public boat ramps on Lake Okeechobee. The rally, which had been promoted in social media, was advertised as a protest of the government’s handling of the water issues plaguing Florida, including the excess freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie.

Josh Greer (left) and Ramon Iglesias (right) discuss water quality issues at the rally held Saturday, July 14, at the Clewiston boat ramps. Photo by Katrina Elsken.

They brought with them signs proclaiming the slogans “Enough is Enough” and “Save our Fisheries” as well as “Stop the lake releases.”

They also brought some members of the media and politicians. When they arrived at the boat ramps, they were surprised to be warmly greeted by a crowd of locals holding signs welcoming them to “America’s Sweetest Town.”

Early that morning Clewiston City officials prepared a stage with a speaker system. They also set up chairs in the shade of some nearby trees. A line formed at a table to sign petitions at a booth manned by the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce. At another booth, the Hendry County FFA Club grilled hot dogs.

Lake area residents also promoted their own campaign, donning t-shirts emblazoned with: “Slow the flow. Let it grow, Protect Lake O.”

Ramon Iglesias explained the slogans.

• Slow the flow: 95 percent of the flow to the lake comes from north of the lake. The campaign seeks to slow the flow of water into Lake Okeechobee by storing water north and cleaning the water before it goes into Lake Okeechobee.

• Let it grow: They seek to convince state agencies to change the way the lake’s aquatic plants are managed to restore the natural grasses around the lake’s edges.

• Protect Lake O: They ask the state to clean the water before it goes into the lake and maintain lake at levels beneficial to the lake’s ecology.

“Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the Everglades,” Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner told the crowd. “Together we can keep our communities strong.

“If we do not slow the flow into Lake Okeechobee, there is no other remedy than sending water east, south and west,” she said. “High water damages our lake.”

She said the “unbelievable amount of water that is coming into Lake Okeechobee” is drowning the heartbeat of the Everglades.

Mrs. Gardner added that the farming communities south of Lake Okeechobee are tired of being caught in the middle by political stunts.

The developments from Orlando south should be held accountable for pollution in their runoff which flows rapidly to Lake Okeechobee, she said.

“Lake Okeechobee does not produce the water. 3.5 million acres of land that is developed is draining into Lake Okeechobee.”

Mrs. Gardner said the communities around the lake support the goals of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which will send more water south to Florida Bay.

“We want to see all of the CERP projects completed,” she said.

“That lake is high. It is 14.5 ft. It is higher than it was with Hurricane Irma, when we had to have a mass evacuation because that levy would not sustain it,” she said.

“It is imperative those projects be completed and be completed quickly.

“We have got to slow the flow and we have got to finish the projects,” she said.

Mrs. Gardner then welcomed to the stage the man who organized the caravans from the coast.

Residents from Florida’s east and west coasts joined lake area residents on Saturday to call for increased water quality standards throughout the state. Photo by Katrina Elsken.

“When I put this thing together on the west coast, I didn’t know it was going to turn out as it did,” said Josh Greer, owner of West Wall Outfitters in Port Charlotte.

“I am not here to protest. I am not here to point fingers. I am here to stand together as communities and as Floridians.

“We have got to get this water cleaned. We have got to get this water south. Without clean water, we’re nothing. Nobody wants to come to Florida. Nobody wants to go to our beaches. Nobody wants to come to this beautiful lake and fish. Nobody wants to come and fish with us on the west coast, on the east coast. Without clean water, we’re done,” he said.

He explained the slogan on his truck “Enough is enough.”

“Enough of the foot dragging, of the excuses, of the finger-pointing. We’ve got to come together as communities as Floridians to get these projects done.

“Lake Okeechobee is the heart of the Everglades. Without that lake being healthy, the Everglades isn’t healthy. If we don’t have an Everglades, we don’t have a Florida,” said Mr. Greer.

“We need solutions that benefit all of the communities,” he said.

Following the speeches, a group of fishermen offered to take members of the media — and others if time permitted, on tours of the lake to see it for themselves.

“Lake Okeechobee is open for business,” said Mr. Iglesias.

“Despite what you may have read in the coastal newspapers, Lake Okeechobee is healthy,” he said.

Professional bass fisherman Scott Martin said restoring the marshes around the edges of the lake is critical to saving Lake Okeechobee, and saving Lake Okeechobee is critical to save the Everglades.

The submerged vegetation used to grow one mile out into the lake from the shore, he said.

He said there were markers in the lake and the commercial fishermen were not allowed in that area.

“That grass isn’t there anymore. That filter is gone,” he continued. “We have to get that back.

“The only way to get that back is by managing Lake Okeechobee at a level that is going to promote the grass to grow,” he said. He said they also oppose the chemical spraying of lake vegetation currently done by the state.

Lake area residents turned out with their own signs calling for the slowing of water entering Lake Okeechobee so that it can be cleaned before it enters the lake. Photo by Katrina Elsken.

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