CLEWISTON — The lowering of Lake Okeechobee’s level can have an effect on boaters even before it declines to under 11 feet, as the grounding of three teenage tourists’ vessel on Saturday, April 27, demonstrated.
It also can dissuade even veteran fishermen from participating in an annual tournament event — the Roland Martin Marine Center Series — that usually draws well over 150 angler teams because of fears of damage to their vessels, or even, possibly, becoming stranded.
That’s what happened to three unidentified teenagers visiting from out of state who went out fishing on Lake O that afternoon from Roland & Mary Ann Martin’s Marina & Resort. Some 127 teams — 254 anglers — were also trying their luck April 27 at a $6,000 first-round prize, but the boys were not in the tournament, said resort general manager Ramon Iglesias.
He said their stranding after running aground just before sunset — which lasted until they were rescued near midnight — illustrates how the pressure to lower Lake O can put lives at risk.
“Members of our group Anglers for Lake Okeechobee (AFLO) have expressed concern over plans to lower Lake Okeechobee to 10.5 feet, as has been proposed, due to negative impacts on safety and the lake’s ecology.
Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been lowering Lake Okeechobee down to dangerous levels, which is a break from previous years and also from the current, approved Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), which has dictated the lake’s level since it was implemented in 2008,” Mr. Iglesias said.
“This past weekend, we saw firsthand how the corps’ aggressive push to lower the lake has already begun impacting boaters and, unfortunately, put one group of teenagers’ lives at risk. At approximately 7:30 p.m. Saturday, these three young men (ages 15, 15 and 12), who were tourists from out of town, ran aground on Lake Okeechobee and remained on the lake well past dark.
“The three boys were rescued about 11 p.m., and their boat was returned shortly after. The area where they were fishing would normally be much deeper this time of year, but due to the Army Corps’ decision to bow to public pressure and make an unprecedented break from the authorized LORS, the lake is significantly lower and boaters have been faced with significant navigation challenges. This was not a crisis determined by Mother Nature. It was an unnecessary, man-made crisis that could have been avoided,” Mr. Iglesias stated.
He added that people should keep in mind that the situation occurred when Lake O was at only 11.3 feet. “The consequences of a 10.5-foot lake would be unimaginable,” he lamented.
Despite the ebbing lake, the Roland Martin Marine Center Series tournament drew 254 anglers (down from 330 last year), he said.
Thankfully, Mr. Iglesias added, the fishermen were unharmed, although their boat’s hull did sustain damage.
“Yes, they ran aground. John Biggs from LakeTow/Recovery brought them in,” he said.
Asked whether the lesser tournament turnout this year is directly attributable to the lower lake level, he responded, “No question about it.
The fishing is good, but you’ve got to keep in mind that people are concerned about water levels.
“You’ve got some that are diehards and some that are saying, ‘Hey, I’m not willing to gamble hitting bottom or running aground and damaging my boat,’ so … That’s the issue,” Mr. Iglesias explained.