Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began discharging high volumes of water from Lake Okeechobee to Southwest Florida, a process that often disrupts the fragile ecosystem near Fort Myers.
As a resident of one of the farming communities that is often blamed for these discharges, I do not like to see them occur and strongly support solutions that will stop them from happening. Unfortunately for our state, many of the loudest activist groups currently staging protests and pointing fingers have also been quietly opposing the very project that will stop future Lake Okeechobee discharges.
The project, known as the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan (LOWRP), will finally provide relief at the source of Lake Okeechobee’s problem: north of the lake, where more than 95 percent of the lake’s water and nutrients originate.
If completed along with other projects, scientific estimates from the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) say it can reduce the frequency of harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River by as much as 66 percent. That is why the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis have committed $100 million to the project, and the SFWMD is beginning preliminary work.
However, due to pressure from activists, the project is in danger of not being completed.
The project is also the most cost-effective way to build storage and treatment and help end lake discharges. SFWMD cost estimates put the LOWRP at $893 per acre-foot of storage compared to $3,082 per acre-foot for the C-43 Reservoir and $15,000 per acre-foot for the EAA reservoir. Since the underground components of the project (which provides nearly all of the storage benefits) do not require any land acquisition, the project can also be finished in the shortest amount of time, as well.
In recent months, activist groups such as Captains for Clean Water and the Everglades Trust, joined by Congressman Brian Mast, have opposed this project likely because it takes the focus off of farmers south of the lake, which only contribute on average less than 5 percent of the water in Lake Okeechobee.
In their criticism of the project, they cite concerns over the aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells that will be used to capture and treat freshwater north of Lake Okeechobee. Currently, there are over 100 of these wells safely in use around the state, including many in areas where these so-called activists live. Every well is permitted and inspected by the state. The wells are used to provide drinking water for millions of Floridians. Without this component in LOWRP, the project loses nearly all effectiveness, and billions of gallons of water will continue to flow into Lake Okeechobee untreated, and the status quo of harmful discharges will only continue.
Some activists have rejected this project outright, calling it a priority of “Big Sugar,” which is what they say every time they don’t agree with something and do not want to fight on the facts. That claim would be news to the scientists who designed the project in 2000 before the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was written, the researchers at the University of Florida Water Institute who said it was an option to reduce discharges, the legislators and governor in Tallahassee who funded it, the SFWMD governing board and staff who are implementing it, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who formulated the restoration plan.
If you want to see discharges from Lake Okeechobee end like I do, you should support this project. Stopping Lake Okeechobee’s discharge problem at its source is common sense. Reject calls from special-interest activist groups who only want to distract and attack American farmers, who are actually working every day to solve the problem while growing food for families.
Julia Du Plooy is the founder and president of the Lake Okeechobee Business Alliance. She resides in Clewiston.