OKEECHOBEE – Concerns about algae blooms were once again a topic of discussion at the May 14 meeting of the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and Lake Worth Lagoon.
“We’re really concerned about the level of the lake and the effects of the discharges,” said Lee County Commission Chair Kevin Ruane Lee County. “The Caloosahatchee seems to be the sole outlet,” he said. “We’re approaching the rainy season and we certainly don’t want to take the brunt of the discharges. This scenario really can’t be tolerated.”
He said the hospitality industry is already suffering from the pandemic. “If we have another experience like 2018, I just think there are too many businesses that will go out of business,” he said. “We need to look for whatever help we can from the corps.
“With the LOSOM (the Lake Okeechobee Systems Operating Manual), we’re looking for balance,” he said. He said the ideas that have been thrown out thus far have been less than balanced.
“We’re looking to have all stakeholders to receive what they need and the west coast certainly needs a balance. Yes, we need lake water during the dry season which obviously lowers the lake, and we don’t want too much water during the wet season," said Ruane.
Susan Gosselin, representing Osceola County on behalf of Commissioner Cheryl Grieb, said Osceola County is looking at a massive surface water management plan. “We are looking at the outcomes of dispersed water projects within the county to store some of those high water discharges that everybody would like to see us store in the northern basin.
“We are in negotiations with the corps to be the sponsor for a wetlands restoration and storage project for Shingle Creek,” Goslin continued. Flow into Lake Okeechobee from the northern Everglades starts with Shingle Creek.
“For the first time this spring, we did have a very large blue-green algae bloom on Lake Toho, right on a very popular waterfront in the City of Kissimmee. Sad to say, we got an inch and a half of rain and it went away, because it went south,” said Gosselin.
“We’ve had a very publicized blue-green algae bloom at the Pahokee marina,” reported Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.
“The submerged land is owned by the state of Florida. It is leased to the City of Pahokee. The City of Pahokee maintains the marina there. They currently have no operator at the marina. The operating agreement has to be approved by the Florida Cabinet.
“It’s been sitting on the governor’s desk since late last year. We tried to get them to move that agenda item up to be approved at this month’s cabinet meeting, but weren’t able to do that.
“It’s a little frustrating. There are no permanent pump out stations at the marina,” McKinlay explained. “There is a mobile unit that if you are in a boat at the marina, you can call the city and request them to send the mobile unit out. The mobile unit will then come and pump your sewage tank.” She said she has requested but has not yet seen copies of the call logs to find out how often the mobile unit has been called out. She said from preliminary results, they know there are E Coli counts in the water there.
“We’ve been waiting about 10 days for the DEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) full testing,” she said. “I think there is a lot going on there.
“This really wasn’t an item that fell into the South Florida Water Management District’s budget yet (SFWMD executive director) Drew Bartlett has stepped up and said ‘we have to get this cleaned up.’ I think it has been about every 72 hours we have had to redesign the cleanup plan there in the marina. I do realize there are some structural issues with a wave attenuator that was installed a few years ago and we’re trying to remove some sheet metal that was installed on top of that attenuator that was preventing the continuous flow of water in and out of that marina.
“Now what we are seeing is some very stagnant water in that marina, with boats in there that may or may have been getting pumped out. This is just a disaster.
“We had been told there were some funding issues because the money for blue-green algae clean up had been diverted – and probably rightfully so – towards the Piney Point cleanup that needed to happen before Tampa Bay was absolutely destroyed from the runoff from Piney Point.
“In a good faith effort, I reached out to Congressman Mast’s office as somebody who has a good relationship with the governor to see if we could get some emergency funding restored to that line item in the budget.
“It turned into quite the media circus. I am really embarrassed by a CBS12 interview I saw yesterday where the congressman suggested that the Army Corps of Engineers employees there be treated as war criminals.
“I look at Lt. Col. Polk and I think that is a disservice to the men and women who wear your uniform, and I recognize you are doing everything you can right now to balance the very fragile ecosystem as well as protect the safety of the residents who depend on that lake and the structures around it to make sure that once June 1 hits, come hurricane season they are protected.
She also pointed out the City of West Palm Beach had to close the gate to the M canal because there is water that comes off the lake to the L-8 canal. Part of the water from the L-8 goes into the M canal which feeds into Grassy Waters Preserve which is where the City of West Palm Beach gets its water supply.
“We talk about shared adversity. We can’t shut one gate off at the expense of other communities,” she said.
“Lake Okeechobee is not a storm water management system. It is a living, breathing body of water,” said Mckinlay. “It is time we stop any efforts to point the finger at one particular agricultural company and put all of the blame on them. Historically ag had some practices and I think in the early 1990s the federal judicial system recognized those practices were not safe and they were not good for the environment and they were forced under judicial decree to go and fix that. And they have been fixing that for three decades now.
“We also need to recognize there has been development. There have been changes in the way communities operate. If we are going to fix this, we need to recognize that every one of us in South Florida, from Orlando south, had a part in what we are experiencing now.
“It is not a sugar company that caused this,” said McKinlay. “It’s everything and we need to stop blaming be adults and be able to just sit around a table and work to find fair solutions.
“Until we do that, we’re going to continue to see the type of flareups we’re seeing at the Pahokee marina.”
She said the 16-county coalition is the one body that brings reasonable, fair solutions to the table and discusses them like adults.
“Threatening to handcuff yourself to the lock or anchor your boat outside of a lock or bring the men and women of the U.S. military up for war crimes is not going to solve this problem,” she said.
Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor agreed with that sentiment.
“We have an extraordinary environmental area in Collier County. It’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the largest gathering of old growth cypress swamp. It’s is drying up,” said Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor. “It’s drying up because we dug canals to accommodate growth to the south of it and now we have to figure out how to get it right and how to keep it alive.
“That’s what we’re facing. We made the best decisions at the time we made the decisions, but we’re getting smarter and nature is telling us what to do and we will adjust to it.”
Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner added his thanks to SFWMD for their work at the Pahokee marina.
“Drew, thank you for not asking for permission or waiting for analysis,” said Turner. “What SFWMD did in response to the Pahokee community in that marina is what I call leadership. You didn’t stand around saying ‘let’s all think about what needs to go in here.’ You jumped right into the frying pan. You understood there was a tremendous amount of hyperbole being created and right, wrong or indifferent, like my old football coach used to say, you went down the field and you struck the hell out of a jersey of a different color. You took action and that’s leadership.”
In the public comment period, Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation thanked SFWMD for getting ahead of the problems at the Pahokee marina. “We’re still treating the symptoms. We’re not getting at the root of these issues,” she said, “as evidenced from Ms. Gosselin’s comments that we are flushing this downstream from one water body to another.
“We need to get at the root of the issue with the the nutrients that are feeding these blooms,” she said.
“People don’t seem to understand algae as a whole as much as we can be educating in our daily lives about how algae works and the fact all of these variants, cyanobacteria, red tide ... they eat ... they are a living organism. They are part of our environment and they eat the nutrients that we feed them.
“While it is really important that we learn to manage the symptoms – just as we do the aquatic plant issues – we need to always keep that nutrient loading in mind and keep on that nutrient diet,” she continued.
“The public needs to understand that. And every year we have people moving here from areas of the country where these things are not such an issue, so it has to be a constant going back to kindergarten learning the A, B, C’s of algae and blooms.”
She asked the coaltion to put northern storage and northen cleansing at the top of the Legislative priorities.
“This ecosystem does not start with Lake Okeechobee,” Pipes said. “We tend to blame the lake. We tend to talk around the lake. We tend to fuss about what we are getting from the lake, but if we don’t get that northern piece right, we are not going to make the progress we need to make.”
“As we shift from LORS (Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule) to LOSOM, we just ask that you continue to look at the science and keep the politics out of it,” said Brandon Tucker, chairman of the Economic Council of Okeechobee County. “We support a 12.5 to 15.5 feet level for Lake Okeechobee. We believe that is consistent with the science.
“When managing Lake Okeechobee, you don’t know when it’s going to rain, where it’s going to rain or how much it is going to rain,” he said. He asked the coalition to support a lake level schedule that can be managed with flexibility.
“As we’re doing with a lot of critical issues, we have no representation on the governing board of the SFWMD,” Tucker continued. He asked the coalition to use their authority to encourage the governor to fill the Heartland position on the govering board.
Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau Federation said he also encourages the SFWMD vacancy be filled as soon as possible in order for the people in the Heartland area of the district to have representation on that board.