Dirty water drives dozens to Lake Okeechobee rally in Clewiston

Chad Gillis
The News-Press

About 100 people gathered along the banks of Lake Okeechobee on Saturday in Clewiston to talk about water quality issues that have plagued the Everglades system for the past two months.

"Without clean water, we're nothing," said Punta Gorda fishing guide and event organizer Josh Greer. "Nobody wants to come to Florida, nobody wants to come to our beaches, nobody wants to come to this beautiful lake and fish and nobody wants to come to the east coast and west coast to fish." 

Greer and others at the rally expressed frustrations over the growing water quality problems in South Florida. 

The Everglades system starts just south of Orlando and runs through Lake Okeechobee and south to Florida Bay. 

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But the water in the system is polluted with nutrients. 

Algal blooms have festered for several weeks in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, both of which were connected to the lake to drain the Everglades for farming and development. 

Lake waters were brown to green Saturday, with patches of dense algae in stagnant areas and more clear conditions on the open lake. 

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Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner said the federal and state government need to speed up projects like the Herbert Hoover Dike repair, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project, and what's called the Everglades Agriculture Area, or EAA reservoir. 

"Our cry is: get the projects done," Gardner told the crowd. "Finish the work that needs to be done. Let's don't keep pointing fingers at everybody. There's shared adversity, but at some times, especially during hurricane season, the water can't stay in the lake."

Lake Okeechobee levels are about 14.4 feet above sea level. 

Army Corps protocols say the surface of the lake should be kept between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level in order to protect land and lives south of the lake while also providing water to urban and farming areas as well as natural systems like the Caloosahatchee. 

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Storing more water in the lake is one option that may be available once the Corps completes dike repairs in 2022. 

Gardner said the lake can't take too much more water. 

"We don't want to see Lake Okeechobee become a reservoir," she said. "It's a natural part of the Everglades. It's been replumbed and there's changes that have been made to it but we will protest until the cows come home if they want to make that lake into a reservoir."

Mike Conner, from Stuart, drove to Clewiston to support Everglades restoration projects like the dike and EAA reservoir. 

"We have terrible algae blooms and we're in for another bad one (on the east coast)," Conner said. "The Caloosahatchee is just a mat of blue-green algae and the water is too toxic for recreation, and that's unacceptable. And we're concerned that the EAA reservoir may not be enough." 

Waters in the Caloosahatchee have tested positive for toxins that are well above recreational advisories from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Conner said most of the water that's released from Lake Okeechobee should flow south to Florida Bay. 

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"We can't be flooded like this year after year," Conner said. "We need to send this water under the Tamiami Trail, get the projects in the ground, the EAA reservoir or whatever it takes, get the water to Florida Bay. As we speak our estuaries are being destroyed. It's simple. The water needs to go south to Florida Bay like it used to."

Others came to talk about a red tide that's been raging in the Gulf of Mexico since last October. 

"There's more red tide than we've seen in recent years," said Charlotte Harbor fishing guide Dave Stephens. "It's lasting longer, and this (blue-green algae) water is getting into the south end of Pine Island Sound from the Caloosahatchee." 

Stephens agreed that more Everglades restoration projects need to be sped up. 

"It's effecting too many businesses," he said. "It's not just the fisherman. It's the hotels and the restaurants. People come to Florida for the beaches. They come to Florida to fish. They don't want to come to the beach when there's red tide or green slime."

Greer said the day was more of a gathering than a protest. 

"I'm not here to point fingers," Greer said. "I'm here to stand together as communities, as Floridians. We've got to get this water clean and we've got to get this water south. We have to come together and say enough is enough."

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Twitter. 

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