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Liquid Heart: Lake Okeechobee part one

Early in the morning, steam rises from the stacks of a U.S. Sugar processing plant in Clewiston. Whether it’s sugar, citrus, cattle, dairy, row crops or fishing, economies in the small towns that surround Lake Okeechobee are woven in soil and water. Lake Okeechobee feeds household taps in Clewiston, Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee and irrigates crops to the south. Lured by tales of clear water and gigantic fish on Lake Okeechobee, tourists also pump millions into local economies. About 500 fishing tournaments are held on the lake every year.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Naples Daily News

Early in the morning, steam rises from the stacks of a U.S. Sugar processing plant in Clewiston. Whether it’s sugar, citrus, cattle, dairy, row crops or fishing, economies in the small towns that surround Lake Okeechobee are woven in soil and water. Lake Okeechobee feeds household taps in Clewiston, Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee and irrigates crops to the south. Lured by tales of clear water and gigantic fish on Lake Okeechobee, tourists also pump millions into local economies. About 500 fishing tournaments are held on the lake every year.

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  • Cattails and sawgrass sway as fishermen slice across the still waters of Lake Okeechobee recently. Decades of managing the lake for water supply and flood control, without regard for fisheries and bird habitat, have left the water body in dismal environmental condition. Hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 sent water rushing down the Kissimmee River, pouring record amounts of algae-causing nitrogen and phosphorous into the lake. The liquid heart of Florida sits in the center of the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. Its health dictates the health of the Everglades, and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.
  • Loricariidae, or plecostomus, is the family of sucker fish often found cleaning algae from the sides of household fish tanks. But the fish has found its way to Lake Okeechobee, along with 15 other exotic fish species that threaten the food supply of indigenous species.
  • Bill Proctor has lived in Moore Haven since the ’70s, while his great-grandson, Jordan Thomas, 17, a senior at Moore Haven High School, grew up along the banks of the once-clear waters of the Caloosahatchee River. Connected to Lake Okeechobee, the river carries silt stirred up from the lake’s bottom to San Carlos Bay on the Gulf Coast.
  • Mark Davis, a professional bass fisherman from Arkansas, cruises Lake Okeechobee in search of a perfect spot for the Wal-Mart FLW fishing tournament. Davis, who says he has fished the lake for 20 years, remembers when he could pull in 20 bass on a normal day; now, he says, he’s lucky to pull in five.
  • Fishing for shiners, Jack Peterson, a Palm Beach native, tosses a 12-foot cast net into Lake Okeechobee. As a bait fisherman, Peterson makes his living off the lake but finds himself working longer to make ends meet. “Some days now I am lucky to pull up enough fish to pay for my gas,” Peterson says. When lower water levels in the lake allowed grasses to grow, Peterson could catch enough fish in a morning to make a full day’s wages.
  • Gray, dead stalks are all that remains of cattails sprayed for eradication by the Army Corps of Engineers. Cattails have always existed on Lake Okeechobee, but the plant has reached infestation levels because of the unusually high concentrations of nutrients in the water. Ultimately, the cattails have begun to choke out the other grasses needed to support Lake Okeechobee fauna. While most agree that the spraying is beneficial, some believe leaving the sprayed stalks in the lake adds to the problem of poor water quality.
  • Where the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River transitions into San Carlos Bay, Roy Kibbee pulls up crab traps in January, about two weeks after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped dumping huge volumes of Lake Okeechobee’s polluted water into the river. Kibbee said crabs flee the bay when the Army Corps opens the spillway. The lake waters turn the river dark and dilute the estuary’s salinity. Degrading water quality has taken a toll on Kibbee’s crabbing business. In healthier times, Kibbee operated four crabbing boats with a crew of two men. Now he works alone, sometimes barely covering the cost of fuel.
  • An angler fishes as high-rise condominiums are built behind him near Cape Coral along the Caloosahatchee River. The population explosion in Florida has been one of the major contributing factors to Lake Okeechobee’s demise, with increased demand for flood control, water storage and runoff from homes.
  • 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. Sanibel leaders will survey island residents this spring to determine whether the community supports suing the South Florida Water Management District over the releases from Lake Okeechobee.
  • Daniel and Dodi Boone of Tennessee streak through the cattails with Terry Garrels, an airboat tour guide. Garrels operates out of the Roland and Mary Ann Martin Marina in Clewiston. Garrels and many Lake Okeechobee residents agree the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers need to take drastic measures to revitalize the lake and protect area economies.
  • Rays of afternoon sunshine make a sugar cane crop glow golden near Moore Haven recently. At one time, this field, along with 700,000 acres of farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area, would have been a constant flow of shallow water filtering through the marshes and hammocks, cleaning water for the Everglades and estuaries.
  • A sugar harvester collects sugar cane near Clewiston. The sugar industry kicked into high gear 60 years ago, after U.S. government projects to control flooding south of the lake made farming possible. Before the 1994 Everglades Forever Act imposed strict water-quality standards on farmers south of Lake Okeechobee, farmers loaded fields with fertilizers and pesticides. The pollutants made their way back into
the lake and the Everglades. Today, stormwater treatment areas clean farm runoff before it reaches the Everglades.
  • Heading west, a sailboat makes its way through the Caloosahatchee River recently, breezing by the vast sugar cane fields near Moore Haven. The river, which connects to Lake Okeechobee, makes crossing Florida possible for large ocean-going vessels and also serves as a way for goods to travel across the state by water.
  • Trey Dyess breaks open a sugar cane stalk. Farmers burn the cane to strip off the leaves before harvesting. Environmental leaders have long criticized the industry’s farming practices.
  • Early in the morning, steam rises from the stacks of a U.S. Sugar processing plant in Clewiston. Whether it’s sugar, citrus, cattle, dairy, row crops or fishing, economies in the small towns that surround Lake Okeechobee are woven in soil and water. Lake Okeechobee feeds household taps in Clewiston, Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee and irrigates crops to the south. Lured by tales of clear water and gigantic fish on Lake Okeechobee, tourists also pump millions into local economies. About 500 fishing tournaments are held on the lake every year.
  • Moore Haven Water Control Structure 77 releases water from Lake Okeechobee and other nearby tributaries such as Fish Eating Creek in June 2005. The water on the left is from Lake Okeechobee. Turned up by several hurricanes and containing pollutants from the Kissimmee River basin and agricultural runoff with suspended muck particles, the water actually appears lighter. The darker water on the right is clear, containing fewer suspended particles. After several large water releases like this one in preparation for hurricane season, several local communities saw large algae blooms, choking off canals in areas such as Cape Coral. That sparked public outcry for a solution to Lake Okeechobee’s problems and caused communities to consider lawsuits.
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