Water storage and treatment proposed north of Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee watershedOKEECHOBEE — The July 26 Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project meeting drew a crowd that packed the meeting room at the South Florida Water Management (SFWMD) Okeechobee office –twice.

So many people turned out for the July 26 meeting that organizers decided to offer the same presentation twice, with each period followed by comments from the audience.

Matt Morrison, of the SFWMD, explained that the meeting was part of the process to gather public comment on plans to store and treat water north of Lake Okeechobee .

Goals of the watershed plan include improving the quality and better controlling the quantity of water entering Lake Okeechobee from the north which, in turn, will help improve the distribution of water leaving the lake.

The project area proposed for water storage includes areas of Glades, Highlands and Okeechobee counties, according to the map presented at the meeting.

The watershed project will not include any change to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, according to Lisa Alley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE).

Dr. Gretchen Ehlinger, also of the ACOE, explained that after a period of public comment they will prepare an environmental impact statement that will consider options for the most ecological restoration at the lowest cost.

She said the new planning process looks for solutions using a 3-by-3-by-3 rule:

• A project takes less than 3 years;

• Costs less than $3 million; and,

• Has three levels of review.

She said they are at the beginning of the progress. Public comments will be accepted until Aug. 8. The study period will take 18-36 months, “so it’s a quick one,” Dr. Ehlinger said.

Approximately 40 people signed up to speak in the first public comments period. They included residents of the counties that surround the lake, those from the east and west coasts and from as far north as Orlando.

Officials representing Okeechobee and Glades counties asked that the water storage and treatment areas also be considered in the upper Kissimmee River basin.

Paul Carlisle, Glades County manager, asked the planners to capture and clean water in the upper Kissimmee basin.

“Look at land in the urban areas that have the discharges,” he said.

He also asked them to use property the state already owns.

“When you take more land off the tax rolls in our county, we should be compensated for it,” he added.

Maria Bolton-Jonbert, of Orange County, said she came to the meeting to demand the state plan to move water south through the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Ron Hamel, with Gulf Citrus Growers, said storage is needed throughout the system,

“All of the statistics are pointing to storage north of the lake,” he said. “I wish you could speed this up. This process has been going on for over 20 years.”

Several speakers asked to present information on technology to clean the water. They were advised to send their information to Dr. Ehlinger, as speakers were given a two minute limit.

Gary Ritter, with Florida Farm Bureau, said that agency is in favor of completing projects already planned, and looking for opportunities for projects on existing state land. He said farmers have already improved the water quality by using Best Management Practices (BMPs).

Mr. Ritter noticed that the water storage areas on the map were limited to Okeechobee , Highlands and Glades counties.

“What about opportunities in the upper Chain of Lakes?” he asked.

He said Farm Bureau does not support additional land acquisition that would take land out of agricultural production and mean more loss to the state and the country’s food supply.

Okeechobee rancher Ben Butler said farmers and ranchers have done their part to help the Northern Everglades with the use of BMPs.

“The expense of measures required to clean water before it leaves their property has taken a toll on agriculture. I am thankful we are still here and able to produce food for the rest of the people in the State of Florida,” he said.

Hilary Swain, with the Archibold Biological Station near Lake Placid, said they should consider the entire watershed of 2.6 million acres.

“I think you are making a mistake thinking of the watershed as a five gallon bucket and we’re just messing around with the bottom two gallons,” she said.

Keith Pearce, a fifth generation rancher from Glades County, said the government already owns 5.5 million acres in south Florida.

“Why are we looking at purchasing more land?” he asked.

He said the state should fund projects on land the state already owns.

“It is sad to hear people talk about owning land,” said Betty Osceola, who said she grew up in the Everglades.

“You do not own land. Mother Earth does,” she said. “You are dealing with a living system. The water is not dead. The land is not dead. The farmers know that.”

She warned those present about blaming others for the problems in the environment.

“When you point your finger, you have four pointing back at you,” she said.

Okeechobee City Councilman Dowling Watford said agriculture is important, “because we all eat.” He said he would like to see more done with conservation easements and water farming.

He encouraged everyone to support the CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) projects.

“If we worked as hard getting the projects funded as we do complaining, it would be a lot further along,” he said.

Clewiston city manager Al Perry said water storage and treatment north of the lake is important.

Shannon Larsen of Ancient Trees said, so far, there have not been enough details on the proposal for her to decide if she is in favor or against it.  She said she would like to see water managers “get out of the STA box” and consider new technologies and more innovative systems.

Bobby Billie said the canals used to drain south Florida were cuts in the flesh of the land.

“When you cut canals, it bleeds,” he said. “You are killing the land for future generations.

“We need to fill in these ditches and plant grass over them.

“You can’t live in the wetlands and complain about being under water,” he added.

He went on to say there is already too much development –concrete just pollutes and makes pollution, he added.

“It’s simple. Build your home on higher ground,” Mr. Bille said.

Dr. Julie Bjornson said the people who were advocating to “send the water south” were forgetting something.

“Water doesn’t stop at the Everglades,” she said. “I grew up in the Keys. The reefs are dying. I am really concerned about the water quality.”

She said chemicals in the water are destroying the reefs.

Reverend Patricia Wallace, from Pahokee, said the state should bring more local people from around the lake to the table and involve them in the planning process.

“We touch the lake,” she said. “I can walk out my back door and over the dike into the lake.

“Sending the water south would sweep me away,” she said. “Don’t sweep me away. Do not displace people with the release of water.”

“We’re all in this together,” said Clewiston City Council member Mali Gardner. “We care about our community. We love our farmers.”

Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner said buying land south of the lake “is not an option.” He said the campaign to buy land south of the lake “takes the eye off the prize.”

Mr. Turner added that sugar farmers are environmentally responsible –cleaning water before it leaves their land.

“Sugar farmers are the best conservationists on the planet,” he said/

Terry Torrens, natural resource manager for Osceola County, said she would like to see the projects expanded to the northern Kissimmee basin.

“We feel we have potential options in the upper basin. We’d like to be part of the plan,” she said.

“We understand that water from our county flows south and its quality and quantity is part of the problem,” said Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb. “We want to be part of the solution.”

She said aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) projects would be a good fit for Osecola County.

“Osceola County can be part of the solution if we are invited to be part of the process,” she said.

Comments are currently being accepted on the project through Aug. 8, 2016, and can be emailed at OkeechobeeWatershedRestoration@usace.army.mil; or, mailed to the following address:

Gretchen Ehlinger

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District

P.O. Box 4970

Jacksonville, FL 32232-0019.

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