Hurricane Ian left Lake Okeechobee a mess. The storm winds churned the lake, tearing up the vegetation that creates habitat for fish and wildlife. After the storm passed, things got worse for the Big O.
In order to save 10,000 homes in Orlando/Kissimmee from the rising flood waters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers teamed up with South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to pump the water through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes into Lake Okeechobee.
Their efforts were a success for the urban residents of Orlando/Kissimmee and a disaster for the ecology of Lake Okeechobee.
To add insult to injury, during the dry season, although the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS-08) called for lake releases east and west, the corps opted to use “operational flexibility” to “bank” 800,000 acre feet of water – and an extra two feet of water – in Lake Okeechobee, in order to protect the coastal estuaries from damaging freshwater flows.
Once again, the urban areas were protected at the expense of the environmental health of Lake Okeechobee. The high lake levels meant the lake had no chance for the aquatic vegetation in the lake to recover. The lake started the wet season around 13.7 feet (above sea level). On Sept. 15 it was 15.36 feet.
According to survey information shared at the Sept. 14 SFWMD Governing Board meeting, Lake Okeechobee’s submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) is down to about 2,500 acres. A healthy Lake O would have 100,000 acres of SAV according to Scott Martin, of Anglers for Lake Okeechobee.
At that meeting, officials opined there is nothing they can do about this critical loss of fish habitat until the lake level goes down. The lake needs to drop to around 12 feet in order for sunlight to reach the seed beds and new SAV to sprout. Once the SAV sprouts, the lake level needs to stay low for the SAV to grow. A slow lake ascension is critical – if the lake level rises faster than the plants can grow, the new SAV won’t survive.
Since officials have not offered any solutions other than “pray for a drought,” how about listening to those who have studied the Big O for decades?
Here’s my own modest proposal, which will not increase SAV but could help the fishing guides while we wait for the lake level to go down.
I propose Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Service (FWC) put a moratorium on the spraying of aquatic herbicides on the 2,500 acres of SAV the lake has left. FWC uses herbicides to control nonnative aquatic invasive plants – a practice anglers have protested for years.
SFWMD can tell them exactly which areas of Lake O would be off-limits to the spray boats. They shared the maps of SAV during the meeting.
I propose that during the ban, mechanical harvesting be used to maintain navigation channels in the protected areas and to remove invasive vegetation that would block sunlight to the SAV.
I propose the ban be kept in place until the lake recovers a minimum acreage of SAV agreed upon between the anglers, SFWMD and FWC.
Some points to consider:
I am not a fisherman. I am not a biologist. My idea might not be the best. But praying for a drought is simply not good enough. So that’s my suggestion.