Water resources conference offers solutions for Lake Okeechobee

When discussing water quality in the Caloosahatchee River, scientists, engineers, natural resource planners and land use attorneys swiftly shift their focus these days to Lake Okeechobee.

The Florida chapter of the American Water Resources Association hosted its 15th Annual Southwest Florida Water Resources Conference on Friday at Florida Gulf Coast University. The conference, which brought in panelists from the community, focused on the diminishing quality of water in the river and how to slow that degradation.

Moore Haven Water Control Structure 77 releases water from Lake Okeechobee and other nearby tributaries such as Fish Eating Creek. Lee County commissioners said Tuesday that Gov. Jeb Bush's new plan to speed up the recovery of Lake Okeechobee sounds good but is too short on the immediate fixes so desperately needed for the Caloosahatchee River and its coastal estuaries.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Bonita Daily News file photo

Moore Haven Water Control Structure 77 releases water from Lake Okeechobee and other nearby tributaries such as Fish Eating Creek. Lee County commissioners said Tuesday that Gov. Jeb Bush's new plan to speed up the recovery of Lake Okeechobee sounds good but is too short on the immediate fixes so desperately needed for the Caloosahatchee River and its coastal estuaries.

"I'm dealing with visitors who are calling and asking questions that did not get asked five years ago," said Tamara Pigott, of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau. She said potential tourists are asking about red tide and blue-green algae and are wondering if the water in the river is safe for boating and swimming.

"It puts us in a really strange position because our whole goal is to get people here to come and enjoy our environment," Pigott said.

Panelists and speakers pointed their fingers at stormwater run-off from urban landscapes, agricultural run-off, septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, boat propellers and Lake Okeechobee's nutrient-rich waters. When rains dump too much water for the lake's dike system to hold, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sends the water out to sea via the Caloosahatchee River on the west and the St. Lucie River on the east.

Solutions offered ranged from creating more environmentally friendly communities within the Caloosahatchee and Lake Okeechobee watersheds to buying agricultural lands for water storage south of the lake.

Nearly every speaker agreed the rate of residential growth throughout Florida was a major concern for the river's water quality. From converting farmland for water storage and stormwater treatment to providing water resources and wastewater treatment to new areas, growth and rising land costs were cited as major obstacles to the river's recovery.

Carla Palmer, of the South Florida Water Mangement District, and Richard Anderson, developer and sales director for Little Pine Island mitigation bank, suggested forming more partnerships between government agencies and private businesses.

Anderson said innovative ideas need to be explored, such as converting publicly owned lands in Lehigh Acres to an environmentally friendly golf course community and working with the developer to retain water on the land.

Long-term solutions, such as the Everglades Restoration Plan and other projects meant to improve the cleanliness of Lake Okeechobee, were also discussed. Natural resource experts and conservationists, however, called for more immediate solutions specific to the Caloosahatchee River.

Roland Ottolini, natural resources director for Lee County, said the current focus on restoring the Everglades ignores the Caloosahatchee Estuary.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will come out with a Southwest Florida Feasibility Study in 2008 for the restoration of the estuaries on the state's west coast, but by then the cost to put such a plan in place could be astronomical, Ottolini said.

"We're going to need to buy the land now," he said.

In the interim, the river is suffering from too much fresh water from Lake Okeechobee in rainy years and too little water flow in dry years.

In the last five years, he said, the river has seen an increase in the volume of water flow from the lake and an increase in frequency. The water has contributed to the death of sea grasses and blooms of blue-green algae.

"It appears to me we're always in emergency operation mode," Ottolini said.

Some panelists suggested the weather is at least partially to blame for the river's problems and that nature is fairly resilient to stress.

Hugh English, an agribusinessman and former member of the SFWMD governing board, said Florida might be in a wet cycle now but said there have been wetter years.

In 1948, he said, 78 inches of rain fell in the region.

"The water run through our house," said English, a long-time LaBelle resident.

Ottolini said the system might be going through a natural wet cycle but is less resilient to handle the stress because of development, the management of the river and the lake, and pollution are exaggerating nature's extremes.

Beverly Grady, attorney and member of the Water Resources Advisory Committee to SFWMD and a member of the Lake Okeechobee Committee, said the district and the Army Corps of Engineers need to explore storing excess lake water in the Everglades Agricultural Area, or EAA.

"The EAA is not being built to capture excess lake water," she said. "We need to look beyond C-43 and C-44."

The C-43 reservoir is being built to hold water from the Caloosahatchee in LaBelle during the rainy season. The C-44 reservoir will serve a similar purpose for the east coast.

Jennifer Hecker, environmental policy specialist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said policy makers need to buy land in the EAA for storage before the land prices rise too high.

"We are seeing developers moving in and building houses in cane fields," Hecker said. "If we allow that land, while we debate, to be committed ... for residential development, it just compounds the problem and exacerbates the position that we are in."

English and others said putting more and more land under public ownership is not a good solution because land is expensive to buy and manage. Public ownership of property also removes it from the tax base.

He also said the communities in the interior of the state depend on agriculture the same way the coastal communities depend on the estuaries.

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