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Lake Okeechobee’s Lower Level Debated Among Stakeholders

Amy Green

Lake Okeechobee is Florida’s “Liquid Heart,” and people who depend on it for irrigation, drinking water, recreation and their livelihoods are often in conflict on how to take care of it.

This year, the conflict has heated up because the Army Corps of Engineers has been keeping the level lower than usual. Some say it will save the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers from toxic algae blooms. Others claim it risks a devastating water shortage.

Mark Twain, who supposedly said: “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over,” would feel right at home at Lake Okeechobee.

Beginning early this year, the Corps began efforts to lower Lake Okeechobee, primarily with discharges to the St. Lucie River from Feb. 23 to March 31 and continuing discharges to the Caloosahatchee River, with two goals:

— Reduce the risk of needing large-scale discharges during the summer rainy season because of high-water threats to the Herbert Hoover Dike

The logic is pretty simple: The more water you get out of the lake during the dry season, the more space you have in the lake to take on rainwater during the wet season without a risk of dike failure or massive toxic algae blooms.

— Improve the growth of underwater plants that are a major part of the lake’s ecosystem

The plants need shallow water — less than 12 feet in elevation for at least 30 days — to germinate and grow. Over the last few years, the lake has been too deep, and the range of underwater plants has dropped from more than 40,000 acres to around 5,000 acres.

Well, so far so good — at least for the plants.

Since the discharges started, the lake has dropped 1 foot, 7 1/2 inches, from about 12 feet, 10 inches to 11 feet, 3 inches Friday morning.

Most of that has been because of evaporation; the 8 billion gallons of water discharged to the St. Lucie River accounted for just about half an inch off the lake. Discharges to the Caloosahatchee are continuing.

“Since the Corps began taking the water down, the submerged vegetation has been doing really good,” Lawrence Glenn, coastal systems administrator for the South Florida Water Management District, told the SFWMD board Thursday. “We’re really getting coverage back.”

The submerged vegetation helps clean the water and provides critical habitat for fish and aquatic life.

It also helps prevent toxic algae blooms, Glenn said, because the submerged plants compete with blue-green algae cells for nutrients in the water.

“What we’re hoping is that they duke it out and that the submerged aquatic vegetation wins,” he said.

Whether the lower lake level will prevent summer discharges remains to be seen, particularly if we have an active tropical storm season. Corps officials like to point to Hurricane Irma in September 2017, which raised the lake more than 3 feet — from a comfortable 13 feet, 8 inches to a dangerous 17 feet-plus, in less than a month.

Cross-state boaters and heartland marina operators say Lake O is too low.

Robert Lambert of Everglades Reserve Holding, a company looking to manage the 100-slip Pahokee Marina and Campground, said this week the channel entering the marina basin is just 3 feet, 6 inches deep. Vessels drawing more than that are damaging propellers and rudders.

“These are not the kind of repairs we want to be doing for our clients,” John Helfrich, manager of River Forest Yachting Center, which has facilities on the C-43 Canal at LaBelle and the C-44 Canal near Stuart, told a meeting of commissioners from five lakeside counties Tuesday in Okeechobee. “What will happen if the lake gets lower, or is lower every year, is these clients will seek other routes and facilities.”

Ramon Iglesias, general manager of Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina and Resort in Clewiston, said fishing clubs are canceling tournaments “and fishing other lakes. Others who plan to fish here are canceling their reservations. That adds up to lost room nights all around the lake, and lost business at area tackle shops and fuel sales.”

Friday, the navigational depth of Route I of the Okeechobee Waterway was 5 feet, 2 inches, according to the Corps.

“I’ve seen it at 9 feet and we still fished it,” said Capt. Mike Shellen of Buckhead Ridge, a 25-year fishing guide on the lake. “At this time of year, I’d rather have it low than high. When it’s at 12 feet, it’s optimal conditions for fishing.”

Shellen said he’s catching “35 to 50 bass per trip” and “all the bluegills you want to catch right now.”

Lake Okeechobee is home to scores of wildlife ranging from marsh rabbits to wading birds and ducks to perhaps its most famous resident — the alligator.

Low water and high water don’t impact alligator populations too dramatically, said Arnold Brunell, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s alligator management program.

“They’re pretty adaptable,” Brunell said. “Sometimes, during extended periods of low water, there can be more cannibalism of smaller alligators by larger ones. But once they reach adult status, about 6 feet in length, they’re pretty immune to any kind of depredation.”

High water or extremely low water levels during the egg-laying season in May and June can also lead to raccoons and others animals raiding nests.

No, at least not yet; and probably not in the short term. But some water users are concerned about the long-term effects.

“Right now, we’re not in a dire situation because the wet season appears to be just around the corner,” said Jeremy McBryan, Palm Beach County water resources manager. “But there’s the potential, if we don’t get enough rain during the summer, to be in rough shape in November, December, January.”

Long-range forecasts call for average to above-average rainfall this summer, McBryan said, “but forecasts aren’t always right.”

Will the Corps keep the lake level lower again next year?

Some people on the coasts hope so; the Corps says no; but water users south of the lake are worried.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, deputy commander for South Florida, said Thursday conditions gave the Corps a chance to help the lake ecology and give the estuaries a much-needed break.

“We won’t be pursuing the same operations next year,” Reynolds said.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, is a leading proponent of letting Lake O get lower — down to 10 feet, 6 inches — during the dry season to prevent toxic algae blooms in his district along the St. Lucie River.

“The lake can’t get too low that water won’t be sent to agriculture, to the (Native American) tribes and to everyone who has a straw stuck in the lake,” Mast told TCPalm in August. “If everybody is going to get their water no matter how low the lake gets, then the Corps needs to let the lake level go down.”

Gary Ritter, assistant director of government and community affairs at the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, said Mast is basing his argument on “political science, not pure science.”

This year’s “adjustment” of the lake level is OK, Ritter said, “but they can’t do this every single year. Millions of people depend on that water, and Mother Nature may not be so generous with her rain every year.”