Stuart residents want zero releases from lake

STUART — Stuart area residents who spoke out at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public hearing on Tuesday agreed on their goal for the new schedule for the operation of Lake Okeechobee. For them, the only acceptable number of releases from the lake to the St. Lucie Canal at Port Mayaca is zero.

The speakers did not seem to care what happens to the lake water. They just don’t want it released to the east coast.

“The change of the name from the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) to Lake Okeechobee System Operation Management Schedule (LOSOM) “identifies more of a system approach,” said Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District.

“We are here to listen,” said Col. Kelly.

This effort will conclude in 2022, he explained. The dike repairs are going to be completed that year. He said they have already made some adaptations to LORS.

“We moved more water south this year than we ever had before in LORS. We moved more water during the dry season to the west coast this year than we ever have done in the past,” he said. (Under LORS, the Gulf Coast is guaranteed 400 cubic feet per second of water to the Caloosahatchee estuary, measured at the Franklin Lock, during the dry season. Lee County officials have asked for a minimum of 750 cfs, and have stated 1,000 cfs would be ideal. For most of the current dry season, the releases have been at the requested 1,000 cfs.)

“There are many factors involved: densely populated communities in Orlando, agriculture, fertilizer from my residential lawn, septic tanks and on and on are causing the problem,” said John Gonzalez of the Martin County Board of Realtors. “The number of discharges from Lake Okeechobee that would be most beneficial to the St. Lucie estuaries,” he continued, “is zero.”

Paul Daily, who manages Pelican Cafe on the St. Lucie River, said the summer algae blooms hurt sales at the waterfront restaurant.

Mark Perry of the Everglades Coalition said the lake discharges are destructive to the St. Lucie River.

Mike Glenn said to him, the measure of success would be “healthy grass on the flats.”
A retired engineer suggested filter screens be installed to prevent algae from entering the canals at Port Mayaca. He said the screens could be placed in an arch 200 feet out in the lake to filter the water before it enters the gates at Port Mayaca. He said volunteers could install the screens.

While most of those who spoke at the Feb. 19 meeting in Stuart urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to completely halt discharges to the St. Lucie Canal, Lake Okeechobee area residents were also at the meeting to urge the corps to look north of the lake to address the problems.

“We all want clean water,” said Mike Krause, of Okeechobee Fishing Headquarters.

“Not one person has brought up Mickey Mouse (the Orlando theme parks), where all of this originates. It makes a whole lot more sense to try to clean our problems to the north than once it’s already in the lake,” he said. “The water has to go somewhere, whether it is east, west or south.

“Our business depends solely on the tourism industry. We have to be able to move around on the lake. Our lives matter as well.

“Operating the lake at 12.5 to 15.5 could be adjusted a little bit. I think it could go down to 11.5 feet.

“I invite any one of you to come out at any time to see what we see,” he said.

“My family has been on the northwest shore of Lake Okeechobee for more than 100 years,” said Keith Pearce. “When I was a boy … there was no dike on Lake Okeechobee on the north side. There was a limited dike on the south side. When we had major rain events, hurricanes, whatever, the water would come up to around 15 feet, maybe sometimes higher, elevation. Within a week, that water would be back down to 12 feet. The natural history of Lake Okeechobee without the interference from the Corps of Engineers and water management, all because of politics, was 12 to 15 feet.

“Politics entered the picture. Disney World wanted to come to Florida. My dad as well as numerous other farmers and ranchers around Lake Okeechobee, and community leaders, begged the corps not to mess with the Kissimmee River, told them they would be making a mistake. They did it anyway. I am here today to ask the corps to base this decision on scientific levels of Lake Okeechobee. Get the politics out of this picture. That is why we are where we are today — politics. Get the politics out. Look at the historic data, and make your decision based upon that.

“I have water that leaves my property that is cleaner than the water in South Florida Water Management District’s canals. I’ve got water testing data that is proof. Yet, I am a problem. I am on the verge of losing my property to a reservoir. My family has been there over 100 years,” he said.

Scott Watson, owner of Indiantown Marina, said, “Any lake elevation below 11 feet becomes problematic to everyone and everything connected to the lake. As far as navigation, problems start at 11 feet and get exponentially worse as the water drops.”

In 2008, during the drought, the level dropped to 8.82 feet. Navigation was almost impossible on the waterway, he continued. “Holding the lake level low in the dry season is just asking for a disaster,” he said.

He urged to corps to not “fall prey to political stunts of the day.”

“When we look at lake stages, we need to take a multi-agency approach,” said Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau Federation. “It needs to be a holistic system-wide approach ensuring the regulation schedule,” he said. Regulation schedules from the headwaters of the Kissimmee River all the way down to Homestead need to work together and in concert together, he said.

“Families in the Glades have been there since the 1920s, and no one cares more about Lake Okeechobee than us,” said Jean Boland of Pahokee.

“If the lake level drops to 10.5 feet, it will negatively affect the citizens of our area. It will keep fishermen from being able to fish, boaters from being able to get into our marina.

“If a drought occurs at 10.5 feet, we will all suffer because there won’t be enough water in an emergency. Our farmers depend on the water to water their crop so that everyone in this room is able to have fresh vegetables such as sweet corn, green beans, celery, lettuce, radishes, etc.

“I invite you to come to Pahokee to see the very best view of Lake Okeechobee and to meet the best people in the world. Keep our lake level at 12.5 to 14 feet, please. Come out to Pahokee, and let’s talk about a solution that is fair for all,” she said.

Ramon Iglesias of Roland Martin’s Marina in Clewiston said 95 percent of the water that enters Lake Okeechobee comes from the north. “LOSOM should be based on science, and not politics,” he said. “There is a lot of discussion by the governor and Brian Mast that are based on blame and their own agenda. Before we dictate the level of Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of Florida, you must look at your own back yard and ask why your beaches have been closed due to fecal matter that has nothing to do with Lake Okeechobee and wonder why some will continue to push for a clean water agenda, and yet never agree that they are part of the problem. This world has many water issues. I am sorry to tell you that Lake Okeechobee is not responsible for all of them.

“A 10.5-foot lake due to a drought from time to time, is healthy for a lake. Yet creating a drought by forcing it to 10.5 when Mother Nature did not intend it may be a risk worth gambling, but it must be temporary. You must back it up with burning and allowing the natural filter vegetation to grow. The people south of the lake are sick and tired of being blamed for all of the coastal problems. A permanent 10.5-foot lake should not even be an option. Ecologically, it would be catastrophic, and navigation on the lake would be nonexistent for the recreational fishermen and tourists from all over the country,” he said.

“The false claims that Lake Okeechobee is toxic have hurt the perception of the lake. The plan proposed by Congressman Mast will actually hurt the lake. If this moves forward, you will kill the second largest freshwater lake in the country to appease population growth on the east and west coasts and the hidden agenda of a few.”

Mr. Igelesias handed Congress Brian Mast his business card and invited him to tour Lake Okeechobee. “Let me show you the lake that you don’t know,” he said.

“If we are not at the table, we are most definitely on the menu,” said Janet Taylor of Glades Lives Matter. “We offer an olive branch to Martin County and to Lee County to meet with us and let’s talk about the problem. We have got to work together to solve this problem.

“Congressman, your plan is dangerous. For the sake of everyone living south of Lake Okeechobee, including West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, please do not punish the communities south of the lake. We shouldn’t be considering a plan like the congressman has that will only lead to more discharges. If you want to get Lake Okeechobee down to 10.5 feet, how do you think that is going to happen? It will happen only by doing more discharges. This plan makes about as much sense as thinking that the water south of Lake Okeechobee flows uphill,” said Mrs. Taylor.

“We do not back-pump into Lake Okeechobee,” she said. “The water coming from Orlando and other areas north of the lake does contribute to the problem. We need a solution that will stop discharges. The people living south of the lake want the discharges to end as well,” she said. “Lowering the lake to 10.5 feet is not the way to accomplish this goal.”

“We’re not zombies south of the lake. We’re not robots. We are human beings,” said Allie Biggs of Pahokee.

“Congressman, I don’t agree with you, but you are my brother. We need to work together,” Mrs. Biggs told Rep. Mast.

Additional public meetings are planned:
• Broward County, Tuesday, Feb. 26, time and location to be determined;
• West Palm Beach, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 6-8 p.m. South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Auditorium, 3301 Gun Club Road, West Palm Beach, FL 33406;
• Miami Gardens, Thursday, Feb. 28, 5:30-7:30 p.m., 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 USACE welcomes everyone’s 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.

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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