‘Lake O’ cities’ response to Lee County mayors: We deserve flood protection too

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Four current mayors and one former mayor of cities south of Lake Okeechobee took offense to not being included in a Wednesday meeting with the mayors of Lee County’s six municipalities about water releases from the lake, the group wrote in a three-page letter on Thursday.

“Those of us who have represented the hardworking men and women in the lakeside communities understand the concern and frustration felt in the coastal communities as a result of the continued fresh water releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary,” wrote the ‘Lake O’ group, consisting of the mayors of Pahokee, Belle Glade, Clewiston and South Bay, and former Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser. “However, we are deeply troubled by the lack of understanding and factual information on the issues important to all our communities.”

The growing battle is over the billions of gallons of murky, brown water being released daily from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. Recent rainfall has resulted in record water levels at the lake, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release maximum levels of water.

The Corps of Engineers say the water releases prevent the dike that holds the lake water from being damaged or collapsing, which would result in flooding similar to such during Hurricane Katrina. But the Lee County mayors say the dark water has created an eyesore for tourists and businesses along area beaches and has negatively impacted the local economy.

Gov. Rick Scott publicly entered the debate on Thursday, calling on the Corps of Engineers to raise water levels to help alleviate flooding in the Everglades Water Conservation Areas and limit the release of water from Lake Okeechobee. Raising the water level of the L-29 canal to 8.5 feet would allow “substantial volumes” of water to be moved from Water Conservation Area 3 to the Everglades National Park through the Shark River Slough, Scott wrote in a letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.

The Corps of Engineers did not immediately return a request for comment.

Some clarification

The ‘Lake O’ group questioned why the Lee County mayors want more transparency from the South Florida Water Management District, even through more than 95 percent of the brown water comes from north of the lake, they said.

Water back-pumped into the lake from the south adds less than an inch of water to the lake, the letter said.

Citing SFWMD scientists, the group added that:

  • The quality of water from south of the lake is no different than water from other sources “except that it had lower nutrient levels than many other sources” that feed into the lake.
  • It would be extremely difficult for water to make its way from southeastern pumps to discharge sites on the other side of the lake’s littoral zone.
  • Less than three percent of lake water comes from back-pumping.
  • About 70-80 percent of the flow to the Caloosahatchee River is from local run-off.

Citing a SFWMD water quality report, the group wrote that the back-pumped water is cleaner than most storm water drainage “and not some toxic water that is different from anyone else’s storm water.”

“These are critical facts that would have been extremely helpful to your discussion this morning,” the group wrote.

Taking offense 

The group then asked the Lee County mayors why they should not have flood protection.

“The cities south of Lake Okeechobee deserve automatic flood control just like Ft. Myers, Sanibel, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs and Estero,” the group wrote. “The people who live and work here want to see their homes, businesses and communities protected from the threat of rising waters, just like the residents who live on our coasts.”

It was not fair for the Lee County mayors to ask SFWMD to single out their cities to “put their basic flood protection under a microscope and not provide flood control unless a certain number of lives are at risk,” the letter said.

Back-pumping is not an emergency decision, the group said, but rather one that prevents flooding of nearby communities.

“Are the six Lee County mayors going to set themselves up as judge and jury for how many Glades flooded homes it would take to make it okay with them to start the pumps to drain water off our rural cities,” the group wrote. “Do they get to determine the relative worth of our towns, our people? Because it harms their tourism? If you want to talk about tourism damage, we are sick and tired of the coastal media characterizing Lake Okeechobee water as toxic or polluted. The lake is as healthy as its ever been.”

The group concluded by offering to meet with the Lee County mayors and to stop “pitting wealthy coastal tourism against small farming towns.”

The solution, they said, is to treat the water from the lake’s northern basin before it enters the lake and to support the “Legacy Florida” bill, which would provide more funding for Everglades preservation.

“We are both important and contribute to Florida’s diversity and prosperity,” the group wrote.

Phone conversation

After the letter was sent, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane had a 30 minute phone conversation with Clewiston Mayor Phillip Roland.

Ruane described their talk as amicable and respectful.

“No one wants to pit one community against the other, but the water management district has a responsibility for the east coast and west coast,” he said. “Communication is really paramount and we do need the communication to flow from the local level, to the county, to the state and federal level.”

The Lee County mayors plan to write a letter in response, stating that they believe the purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was misunderstood, that clarification and communication between the two groups can be improved and to build support for the “Legacy Florida” legislation.

The pair also talked about traveling to Washington D.C. together to discuss the lake with federal officials, Roland said.

“I think that if we would’ve been asked, we would’ve been over there at the meeting and I really don’t think anyone knows the lake better than I do,” he said. “I’ve lived it. I’m 75-years-old. I’ve been through my six decades of really understanding the lake and understand what’s been done. And until the Corps of Engineers and everybody gets on board to store water north of the lake, any big water event, we’re going to have water that blows out the estuary of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie. I hate to see that happen because I know we’re going to have fingers pointed at us as being the culprits.”

About 8 billion gallons of water flows into Lake Okeechobee everyday, but only 3.5 billion gallons is pumped out daily, Roland said. The lake was at maximum capacity before January’s storms, which resulted in more water flowing into the lake.

The lake’s water level was at 16.32 feet on Wednesday. The average is about nine feet.

“I have spent many times talking to the Corps of Engineers,” Roland said. “They engineered a broken system, and then had (South Florida Water Management District) to manage it.”

The full letter can be read here: Letter from ‘Lake O’ mayors

Writer:Stan Chambers Jr.