How Clewiston residents feel about Lake Okeechobee releases

CLEWISTON, Fla. – While many residents of Southwest Florida are concerned about Lake Okeechobee releases dirtying shorelines, Clewiston residents are monitoring nearby levees fearful of major flooding.

The Army Corps of Engineers is releasing 3.7 billion gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee daily, but the water levels are still rising, which poses danger in at least four different spots along the lake.

Clewiston residents, like Damien Bishop, said murky water is a relatively small inconvenience. He said he fears a breach in the Lake Okeechobee’s levees could flood his neighborhood.

“My life’s in danger,” Bishop said. “Better have one or two boats in front yard. You’re going to need them.”

At least 2,500 people were killed in 1928 when an unnamed hurricane forced water out of Lake Okeechobee. People in Clewiston said that without large releases from the lake, they could be facing a similar fate. Other residents said they live in constant fear of a catastrophic levee breech similar to 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Lake Okeechobee covers 730 square miles of South Florida and has an average depth of nine feet. The Army Corps of Engineers has not predicted a date when it can slow lake releases, which pushes fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico via the Caloosahatchee River.

The murky fresh water has killed seagrass, which is critical to marine life. But Clewiston Mayor Phillip Roland dismissed any health concerns about lake releases into the Caloosahatchee River Monday.

“I am 75-years-old and nothing’s killed me yet! I’ve drunk lots of water out of that lake,” he said. “If I was out there fishing and I wanted water I’d dip it right out the lake and drink it.”

But scientists said the fresh water does support toxic algae that forms during red tides. The water could potentially harm ecosystems.

Some Southwest Florida residents want to see the lake overflow go south into farm areas and the Everglades. But people in Clewiston said those areas are already saturated. Roland proposed that water be stored in North Florida before ever reaching Lake Okeechobee.

“If they don’t store water north there’s never going to be a workable system. It’s broke,” he said.

There are no plans for lake reservoirs north of Lake Okeechobee.