Water storage on ranch land seen as way to ease Lake Okeechobee releases

In this file photo, fed by nutrients from the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee, mats of green algae cloak the salt marshes of J.N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Staff // Buy this photo

In this file photo, fed by nutrients from the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee, mats of green algae cloak the salt marshes of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

TALLAHASSEE _ Storing water on ranch land remains a primary short-term option for a Senate committee as it considers ways to lessen the harmful effects of ongoing Lake Okeechobee water releases into estuaries on both sides of Florida.

The search for a quick fix comes as the releases, while being reduced in size, are intended to ease the stress on the lake’s frail dike system. Lake releases to the west go into the Caloosahatchee River through Hendry and Lee counties, affecting the balance of fresh and salt water along with releasing polluting nutrients.

State officials said short-term solutions are needed to remove harmful nitrogen-heavy muck and other toxins that have been associated with the deaths of manatees and other wildlife in the estuaries.

While long-term solutions have been in the works for years, other temporary fixes presented Thursday to the Senate Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin included cleaning the water that comes into the lake from the Kissimmee River; reducing nutrients from septic tanks; raising the allowed water levels in canals by a few inches; and getting Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency for the lake to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to re-evaluate the lake protection plan.

“We have to focus on the base hits, not the home runs,” Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said.

Using vast ranch and agricultural lands as storage areas would reduce the amount of water sent downstream when a release is needed.

The South Florida Water Management District is using a couple of ranch properties as a means to divert water from the lake, and another 19 ranchers have presented proposals, District Interim Executive Director Ernie Barnett said.

The Senate committee also wants to look into using publicly owned land, such as the marshy 20,000-acre Allapattah Flats Wildlife Management Area, which is jointly owned by the district and Martin County.

State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart

State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart

Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, requested a list of potential short-term fixes from the South Florida Water Management District by the end of this week, including potential price tags.

A report from the select committee is due Nov. 4.

The committee road meeting came as a response to cries about the economic and health effects from the lake releases on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., said Congress needs “to be sold” on the importance of funding a long-term cleanup.

In response to a request by Negron, Murphy said he would again reach out to President Barack Obama — who in February golfed along the St. Lucie River at the gated Floridian Yacht and Golf Club — to get the federal government to respond to the crisis.

“The fact that the river has been declared toxic, that’s an embarrassment,” Murphy said.

Prior to the marathon hearing, a coalition of environmental groups called for immediate action to clean the river rather than conduct more studies. The coalition also labeled a proposal by Scott to spend $40 million to speed construction of a water-storage area along the St. Lucie River as a “Band-Aid.”

“It only addresses a tiny fraction of the sewage, manure, and fertilizer runoff — called ‘nutrient pollution’ — that comes from within the St. Lucie watershed,” the coalition said in a release. “And it does nothing to reduce the nutrient pollution sliming all the other, rivers, springs, lakes and bays all over Florida.”

Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer said the state is at fault for allowing filthy water to enter Lake Okeechobee rather than controlling the problem at its source and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for failing to fix the 80-year-old reservoir system “that’s operated at the behest of Big Sugar, instead of for the citizens of this state.”

The Army Corps has been releasing water since May to lessen stress on the Herbert Hoover Dike system around the lake and thus avoid a scenario similar to when levees and flood walls broke in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Corps announced Wednesday the releases are being reduced due to drier weather. However, that could change if storms approach South Florida.

Negron questioned the autonomy of the Army Corps in deciding the water level in the lake, suggesting Florida scientists and others should be part of the decision-making.

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