WEST PALM BEACH — Droughts in one part of the state and flooding in others were among the challenges discussed by the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee Estuaries, and the Lake Worth Lagoon at their meeting in the Vista Center on Oct. 30.
“We started the year in drought conditions,” said Lee County Commissioner Kurt Harclerode. Into the spring, Lee County had mandatory water restrictions, he said.
He said he thinks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done a good job managing Lake Okeechobee, “providing us with the needed water we did need due to the dry season.” He noted there were no appreciable algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee the whole wet season.
With the start of releases of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee, which started Oct. 14, “once again we are being hit with the lion’s share of the releases into our estuary,” he said. “ I know the corps is working diligently to get as much water south as possible.”
He said Lee County has reduced the nitrogen inflows to the Caloosahatchee Estuary.
A microbial source tracking study is currently underway looking for nutrients, chemical tracers, DNA and isotopes. This will provide background information that will be used to develop other water quality projects.
While Lee County was dealing with drought, on the other coast, Martin County has been dealing with floods.
“For last six months or so, we have had catastrophic rain events in Martin County, “ said Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith. He said many neighborhoods have been flooded.
“The ground saturation is still incredibly full or incredibly wet,” Smith explained. He said 10-inch and 20-inch rain events have resulted in significant flooding in the northern part of the county. The county is working on solutions for multiple water-related problems, he added.
“We have a project coming in the Savannas to help us stage the water a little bit longer,” he said.
“Our septic-to-sewer program is accelerating. We continue to keep pushing the envelope on that.” Smith said they plan to remove about 10,000 septic tanks over the next 10 years, with the help of state matching funds.
In the middle of the state, Okeechobee County also had a lot of rainfall, said Okeechobee County Commissioner David Hazellief.
“We’ve had flooding,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of water and it (the ground) is very saturated.”
Hazellief said Okeechobee County is also working on septic-to-sewer projects to help to clean up the water before it goes into the lake.
Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb said they are also trying to find funds for septic-to-sewer conversions. She expressed concern about the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) budget cuts, which have meant less money for aquatic weed management.
It some areas, it’s “like trying to drive boat through shag carpet,” said Grieb.
Osceola County is considering a Shingle Creek Basin study to pinpoint some of the nutrient sources, she added.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay attended the meeting virtually. “I am sitting at home right now in quarantine with COVID,” she explained. “I am telling you, this virus is not fun. Keep wearing your masks. Keep washing your hands.”
McKinlay expressed concern about releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Lake Worth Lagoon.
“It’s different from the Caloosahatchee and it’s different from the St. Lucie,” she said. “With the location of the C-51 (Canal) into the Lake Worth Lagoon, when the water comes out C-51, it doesn’t have anywhere to go.”
She said many areas of Palm Beach County, both agricultural and residential, are dealing with high water issues.
“There is a lot of water sitting on farmland in my district right now,” she explained. The continuing pandemic means local food production is more important than ever, she said. “We need to make sure we can keep that farmland as clear as possible so they can grow our produce this winter.”
St. Lucie County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky said historic rains in St. Lucie County have caused water from the C-25 to pour profusely into the St. Lucie Inlet. The high volume of freshwater from local basin runoff is threatening the oyster beds, he said.
He said St. Lucie County continues to “cobble together” funds for septic-to-sewer conversions.
Charlotte County Commissioner Ken Doherty said they are concerned about water quality in all three of the county’s rivers.
He said they have a 20-year master wastewater program. Charlotte County has converted about 1,800 properties from septic to sewer, with MSBU (Municipal Service Benefit Unit assessments) which can be financed over 20 years. “The septic-to-sewer program is the big water quality initiative in Charlotte County,” he said.
Glades County Board Chairman Tim Stanley said Glades County residents have struggled with different problems.
“We looking forward to a great fishing season with the water level being higher,” he said.
When the lake was low, boat locks were closed, he said. “Now water is back up, and people cannot get into the lake due to the weeds.” He asked if FWC could purchase a harvester to keep the navigation lanes open.
“Last night, an older couple went out. The channel was clear when they went out. When they came back, wind had blown vegetation in,” he related.