Commissioners: Okeechobee plan lacks attention to short-term problems

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.

"There's no interim solution, which is what's required at this time," said Commissioner Ray Judah. "Long-term is all well and good, but we need something meaningful now."

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.

South Florida Water Management District governing board member Alice Carlson, the lone member of the nine-member board from Southwest Florida, brought the details of the governor's new recovery plan to commissioners Tuesday morning. Carlson said there is no overnight fix for the environmental troubles of the Everglades, the lake and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries that receive water from the lake. She said the district will take the lead in carrying out the plan.

Ernie Barnett, policy and legislative director for the district and a member of the district's Lake Okeechobee committee, said the immediate fix included in the plan is a reassessment of the lake management schedule.

"One key element is very short-term," he said. "We're going to look at the Lake Okeechobee regulatory schedule with primary focus on these catastrophic releases to the estuaries."

Barnett said a new strategy for managing water releases from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers would be more protective of the two rivers and their estuaries.

Judah said that sounds good but is a "classic example" of not paying enough attention to fixing the short-term problem. With water managers planning to drop the lake level from 15½ feet to around 12 feet, millions of gallons of lake water will have to go somewhere, he said.

"The problem is where is that water going to go? From 15 feet to 12 feet, the releases are going to go east and west," he said.

Action on the plan could come as soon as today as the district governing board votes on a resolution asking the Corps of Engineers to consider immediate changes in lake management. District spokesman Kurt Harclerode said the resolution will ask the Corps to replan based on "forward" pumps the district has committed to install immediately.

The forward pumps would allow water to be pumped out of the lake for east coast urban use and agricultural use when lake levels are low. That would relieve pressure from those groups to keep lake levels artificially high.

The issue of a so-called managed recession, a strategy to lower the lake level by three feet this winter, remains on the table as well, Harclerode said. The dry season will lower the lake level naturally, but releases would also still be necessary.

Other aspects of the plan, like expediting water treatment projects in the Kissimmee basin north of the lake, will aid the rivers and estuaries long-term. Some, like land-use changes to discourage development around the lake, the implementation of stormwater utilities and the elimination of wastewater sludge spreading on open land, would require local government action.

The entire plan will require legislative cooperation and funding. Incoming Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and State Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the appropriations committee chairman, both supported the funding at the governor's announcement Monday.

The district has pledged $30 million from its current budget and another $50 million over the four-year life of the plan. That means another $120 million is needed from the Legislature over the next four years.

That, commissioners said Tuesday, is critical.

"It was the governor who made a special trip to be there," said Commissioner John Albion, the only Lee commissioner to attend the governor's announcement in Okeechobee on Monday. "That's the upside. The downside is the governor's going to be there a year-and-a-half, and the new governor has to have the same commitment."

"The money has to be available. Otherwise it's just more conversation going on," Albion said.

Lee County Smart Growth Director Wayne Daltry has concerns as well. He wants to see the creation of a committee to parallel the Big Cypress Basin Board to function as a subcommittee of the South Florida Regional Planning Council and offer advice on lake management.

He also wants more details on the destination for the water once it leaves the lake.

"If you're going to draw down the lake to 1½ feet by April 1, onto what lands will you discharge the water instead of to us?"

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