OKEECHOBEE — County commissioners from all around the big lake gathered in Okeechobee on May 7 to discuss the lake so important to their communities.
About 350 area residents were in the audience at the Okeechobee High School Lecture Hall for the historic multi-county meeting.
Okeechobee County Commissioner Terry Burroughs noted the Everglades system begins at Shingle Creek near Orlando.
“When can we start looking at storage north of the lake in order to slow this flow down?” asked Mr. Burroughs.
He said he joined Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner in support of completing the C-43 reservoir on the Caloosahatchee River and the C-44 reservoir on the St. Lucie canal.
“I am more supportive of expanding the geographical footprint to start figuring out how we can start slowing down the flow that comes into the lake,” he said. Cleaning the water before it goes into the lake would also provide relief for the east and west coasts, he said.
“If we don’t start now, we’re never going to get to the end game,” he said.
“We need Congress to help fund their fair share of these projects,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. “We need to be encouraging the White House. Their proposal falls about 100 million dollars short of what we wanted to see this year.
Local governments must also take responsibility for “taking care of our own infrastructure issues at home,” she continued, when it comes to septic tanks and stormwater runoff.
“The agriculture community south of the lake is not back pumping,” Ms. McKinlay said. The only backpumping is for flood control during heavy rain events, to prevent flooding into the homes of residents of Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee.
“We all need to go and do our homework in all backyards,” she said. “We all want a cleaner lake. We want a cleaner Calooshatchee and St. Lucie rivers. We want cleaner estuaries, and a cleaner Lake Worth Lagoon in Palm Beach County as well.
“Let’s just all start working together,” Ms. McKinlay said. “We all agree we just want a healthier environment. We need to work together to make that happen.”
“We need to have a common focus, starting with the level of the lake,” agreed Okeechobee County Commissioner Kelly Owens. “Slowing the flow from the north end is critical. That needs to be one of the pieces in the letter that we hope to put together.”
She said the fear is if the is lake brought down to 10.5, that it will be maintained there.
“Our voices need to heard loud and clear that it is not viable,” she said.
“I don’t think we should mess with Mother Nature and just assume that we can get by with maintaining the lake at that level,” said Mrs. Owens. “The health of the lake and all of the communities surrounding the lake is the top priority. That also means all of the people in south Florida who do rely in times of need on this lake.”
Martin County Commissioner Ed Ciampi said the counties around the lake should work together.
“Many of us are really very close friends,” he added.
“What is new we’ve gotten together as a group of counties,” said Mr. Ciampi. He said he would like to switch the conversation from “shared adversity” to “mutually beneficial.”
“All of the counties have suffered environmental harm,” he said.
“At the top we’re going to work together. Our staffs will work together. Our communities will work together.
“We’re all in this together. No farming — no food. And we understand what you are up against. You are feeding us and we appreciate it,” said Mr. Ciampi.
“All of us know the volume of water that comes into the lake from the north is something we can never control sending it east and west,” he said. “We want to know what they are doing up north.
“It’s all very easy to say ‘send the water south,’ but when they say that up in Orlando and Orange County, they don’t have any shared adversity with us at all,” he said.
The center of the state is not struggling with budgets, Mr. Ciampi said. “100 million tourists go through there.
“We need to hear a lot more about what they are doing north,” he said. “We cannot continue to handle all of the water they keep sending to us.”
Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith said Washington needs to hear the same message from all of the counties in the South Florida Water Management District.
“When we’re not all pulling together, it’s easy for Washington to do something different,” he said. If south Florida is arguing among ourselves, they are more than ready to give the federal money to someone else.
Glades County Commissioner Tim Stanley said the idea of storage north of the lake is good, but Glades County residents do not think all of the northern storage should be in Glades County.
“We’re such a small county,” he said. “Now all the sudden they want to turn us into a water storage area.”
He said the state should compensate counties when they take land off the tax rolls for public projects.
“When I hear north storage all I see is Glades County turning into a duck pond,” he said.
“We appreciate everybody working together,” said Glades County Commissioner John Ahern. “We know we can’t maintain the lake at 10.5 ft.”
Congressman Brian Mast’s chief of staff Steve Leighton said the idea of lowering the lake to 10.5 ft. is not “something he pulled out of a hat.” He said the 10.5 ft. number is on the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS 08).
LORS 08 sets the lake’s operation band at 12.5 to 15.5 ft.
“Quit saying it’s Lake Okeechobee’s water, because it’s not,” said Ramon Iglesius of Anglers for Lake Okeechobee. He said the water releases to the estuaries comes through the lake from the north. “Every other day, he (Rep. Mast) talks about Lake Okeechobee water.”
“I happen to be a coastal resident,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation. It is fantastic that the people around the lake want to work together. “Congressman Mast is not listening to the science and he is cherry picking.
“People want to make these false comparisons,” she said. “It’s not either or. It’s not lake discharges or septic tanks. It’s both and it’s all.”
“The proposals from the coastal communities are not to fix the lake but to punish the people of the Glades,” said Janet Taylor of Glades Lives Matter. “To those who shout at us from far away and belittle our way of life, we are not interested in negotiating the terms of our surrender. This is our home and we are not going anywhere.
“To the policy makers, in your deliberation, please consider the people who live here,” she continued. “There are lives and livelihoods tied to this lake. Your decisions will have generational consequences. To our friends and neighbors on the coast, we can solve these problems together without having to take jobs or drinking water.
“We may all have come here in different ships but we are in the same boat now,” she said. “Glades lives matter just as much as anybody else’s.”
“Let’s keep the politics out of this,” said Brandon Tucker, a former SFWMD board member. “If the science supports a certain level, God in his sovereignty does not send rain, unnaturally politically forcing the lake to a certain level is dangerous.
“We are not God,” he said. “Adhere to the science. Keep the politics and the rhetoric out of it.”
J.P. Sasser of Pahokee said during the last drought, Pahokee was using the lake as a municipal water source. “We were sucking air,” he said. He recalled the City of West Palm Beach was two weeks away from running out of water as well. The richest city in Palm Beach County was in the same situation as the poorest city, he said.
“The problem is Washington,” he said. “The money from Washington has been lacking.”
Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers Florida said it took three years to develop LORS’08.
“Anybody who comes in with a one-trick-pony idea to set a number at the bottom, they don’t have a clue what it takes to manage this lake,” he said. Taking that lake down to a 10.5 low every year will ruin the lake, the heart of the Everglades, he said. “You are going to end up with a mudhole with a bunch of willows around the edges.”
“You cannot take Lake Okeechobee down to a drought level every year without totally devastating the lake,” he said.
“This is an issue of water supply,” said Gary Goforth. He said “the continued pollution of Lake Okeechobee has got to stop.”
“The damage has already been done this year in regard to lowering the lake,” said Scott Kelly, assistant administration for the City of West Palm Beach. “In 2001 the lake was lowered to 13 ft. The weather forecast for that summer was above average rainfall. It didn’t rain that summer. Weather forecasting is an inexact science.” That summer, the lake dropped below 9 feet.
“The best farm land in the world is in Belle Glade,” said George Cooper of Okeechobee. “It grows sugar cane cheaper, better than any place else in the world.
“It’s not a whole lot of voters, but a lot of workers a lot of businesses down the road depend on that. We need to think about it and understand it and try to keep it running.
“It’s the most productive piece of farmland anywhere in the world. We need to keep it there,” he said.
“We do not have representation on the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board,” noted Ardis Hammock of Clewiston. There is not one person on that board who is related to agriculture. Let us have a voice. It’s just not right for us to not have a voice.”
“I want you to know I am listening,” said SFWMD Governing Board Member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch. “I am a protective mother bear of my coast, but I do believe that all of us will do this together.”
“Agriculture is the second largest industry in the state second only to tourism,” said Okeechobee County Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “If Congressman Mast wants to show us that he wants to be fair and equitable, he should support putting someone on that board to represent agriculture.”