OKEECHOBEE — Negative media reports about Lake Okeechobee have cost some Lake Okeechobee businesses about 30 percent of their revenue, according to a group of Okeechobee fishing guides and businessmen who met with U.S. Congressman Greg Steube on Thursday.
The congressman, in town for meetings with constituents, stopped by Garrard’s Bait & Tackle Thursday afternoon to meet with a group of area residents.
Fishing guides also expressed concerns about lower lake levels, which can make it difficult — sometimes impossible — to take boats out on the big lake.
“One of our main concerns is the news media is really hurting business right now,” said Leif Garrard. He said the coastal and national news media repeatedly use the word “toxic” when describing Lake Okeechobee, although scientific studies show this is not true.
“They’ve done the studies, University of Florida and Harbor Branch. It’s not toxic,” he said.
Mr. Garrard also noted that the coastal media outlets have not given the same publicity to the health hazards in the coastal waterways. During the summer, there were numerous beach closures due to high bacteria counts. There were also some algae blooms in coastal waterways.
Even with no lake releases, the media still blame Lake Okeechobee, he added.
Mr. Garrard said he gets phone calls every day from people asking if the lake water is safe, are the fish safe to eat, and is the lake even open? Calls come in from out-of-state residents who have spent part of the winter season in the past, and are reconsidering making the big lake area their winter destination this year because of all of the negative reports they see on television, he said. Of even more concern are the winter visitors who don’t call, but simply believe what they see on television and make plans to spend their vacation elsewhere.
“The lake is beautiful right now. Fishing is great,” said Mr. Garrard, but you don’t see that on television. He said he, along with every other fishing guide in the room, has offered to take members of the media out on his boat to see the lake conditions for themselves.
Mr. Garrard said he is also concerned about the low lake level. On Thursday, the lake was 13.49 feet above sea level.
“We’re going into the really dry season,” he said. “If it continues to drop like it has, come January — our peak season — the lake’s going to be at 9 or 10 foot. You can’t get a boat out on the lake at 9 feet,” he said.
Last year his business was down at least 30 percent, he said. “It will be worse this year if the lake continues to drop.
At 10 feet, it’s dangerous to run a boat on the lake, he said. “People are not going to go out on the lake.
“We had a lot of our northerners leave early last year,” said Mr. Garrard. “They said the speck fishing wasn’t good. They couldn’t get out on the lake. They were stuck in the river and speck fishing wasn’t good on the river.
“It’s hurting every business in town,” he said.
“The problem is intentional, misleading press,” said County Commissioner Kelly Owens.
“Welcome to my world,” quipped Rep. Steube, who was rewarded with appreciative chuckles.
“Unfortunately it is one of your peers that has caused that issue,” said Commissioner Owens.
“Probably the biggest part of it is the non-factual, negative media,” said Mike Krause of Okeechobee Fishing Headquarters. “We’re tired of taking a beating from the media.”
He said his business had dropped 28 percent over the course of the last 18 months.
“We field at least three calls a day on how the water is,” he said. People want to know: “Is the water up, is the water green, can we touch it, can we eat the fish?”
The low lake level this year has also hurt business, he continued.
“Forcing the lake down, not good. Keeping the level at 17 feet, not good,” he said. “We need to step back and let Mother Nature take care of it.”
Mr. Krause said the problems with the high nutrient load in the water starts north of the Big O, in the watershed that stretches from Orlando to Lake Okeechobee.
“A lot of things need to be addressed on the northern watershed where the problems start,” he said.
“More than a billion dollars has been allocated for a reservoir south of the lake to clean and store water from the lake,” he said. “The State of Florida already owns a mile to six miles wide going up the Kissimmee River basin. Why are we worried about fixing it down there before cleaning it up here?”
Okeechobee County Commissioner Terry Burroughs said support for water storage north of the lake is growing. By north, he added, he means starting at the origin of the Northern Everglades at Shingle Creek.
“More people are listening to us now about storage north of the lake than we have ever had,” he said.
Restaurant owner Doug Vest said the decline in visitors to fish the Big O has greatly affected his business. Years ago, the parking lot would be packed with 30 or 40 trucks with boats on trailers in the morning, as fishermen enjoyed breakfast before going out on the lake.
“We haven’t had that in forever,” he said.
“These guys depend on our northern visitors,” said Commissioner Burroughs. People are staying away because of the bad press. “Channel 5, Channel 12, they don’t show the story on what is really going on with the lake,” he said.
He said Bass Pro has plans to convert the Okee-Tantie campground into a world-class fishing resort. “Johnny Morris has agreed to push forward as fast as he can,” he continued. “But one of the issues is the lake level.”
The anglers also complained about Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission’s use of chemical herbicides to control invasive aquatic plants.
“The greatest resource that this state owns is wonderful Lake Okeechobee,” said Dennis Lee of Buckhead Ridge. “It is sorely, criminally abused by chemicals. The whole State of Florida’s waterways are being destroyed by chemicals. It is insane what FWC and Applied Aquatics are doing to the state of Florida.” Mr. Lee said he believes the decline in water quality statewide is directly related to the chemical spraying.
Mike Krause said FWC claims the spraying does not hurt the fish, but anglers tell a different story. Six years ago, a tournament angler figured out that if he stayed 300 feet in front of the spray boats he could catch all of the fish he wanted, said Mr. Krause. Spraying produces a dead zone that depletes the oxygen in the water, he explained. It was driving the fish. The angler won the tournament by 21 pounds.
When the vegetation is killed by the chemical herbicide, it falls to the bottom of the lake where it decays and builds up the muck, Mr. Krause continued.
Jim Watt, a retired turtle farmer, said FWC is violating their own statutes by spraying poisons in Florida waterways. He pulled out a safety data sheet for a herbicide used by FWC and read: “Do not use fish treated from areas for food within three days of treatment.” He noted FWC does not put up any warning signs in areas where the chemicals are used.
“I am a Vietnam vet, Agent Orange era,” said Bob Owens. “They said that wasn’t harmful to humans. I had bladder cancer 40 years later. What is the chemical spraying going to do to the generations down the road? They are putting millions of dollars’ worth of chemicals in a small area. This stuff does not go away. What is it going to do the public long term?”
Commissioner Burroughs said the low lake levels are also of concern because the lake is the water supply for Palm Beach County and the lower east coast. During the last drought when the lake was low, Palm Beach County lost wells to saltwater intrusion.
“This is not about just us. It’s about all South Florida,” he said. “We have one individual pressing the issue on the political side of the house. Now we’ve got a situation where we’re 13.4 entering the dry season. If we don’t get a lot of rain, water management is going to be ‘real interesting’,” he said.
Congressman Steube is a fifth-generation Floridian and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida, majoring in beef cattle sciences and minoring in agricultural law. He resides in Sarasota. Florida’s 17th District covers all of Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee counties, as well parts of Sarasota, Lee and Polk counties.