Mayors: Funding, transparency needed to address ‘Lake O’ water releases

BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. – Transparency, environmental awareness and funding is what it will take to address the water releases at Lake Okeechobee, the mayors of Lee County’s six municipalities said Wednesday during a joint emergency meeting inside the Bonita Springs City Council Chambers.

Describing the problem as “tremendous,” the group wants the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be more open in why and when they decide to release water from the lake, for state legislators to support the “Legacy Florida” bill that would provide more funding for Everglades preservation and for the community to fully support an effort where costs are expected to run into the billions.

The alternative, explained Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, would be far more expensive.

“If it’s $2 billion to solve this over a decade, in perspective, is a pretty small percentage of the multi-billions in quality of life, tourism, economy,” he said. “When you think of it, it brings it into a sensible perspective.”

Applying the pressure

Wednesday’s meeting is the latest in an effort to address the billions of gallons of brown water being released from Lake Okeechobee, which officials say has damaged the area’s economy and ecology.

Recent rainfall has resulted in record water levels at the lake, forcing the Corps of Engineers to release maximum levels of water into the Caloosahachee River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

The water releases prevent the dike that holds the lake water from being damaged or collapsing, which nearby residents say would result in an event similar to the levee breeches during Hurricane Katrina. But the dark water has created an eyesore for tourists and businesses along Lee County’s beaches.

“We can’t hold anymore water at the lake, and we need to ensure the Army Corps of Engineers is doing everything they can,” Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane said. “People just don’t want to hear flood protection and people’s lives are at stake.”

The murky fresh water also threatens marine life because it does not allow light to reach sea grass, according to environmentalists, who also say it aides in the development of toxic red tide algae blooms.

But researchers at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium say red tide, which existed before human settlement, develops up to 40 miles offshore and there is no direct link between red tide and polluted water.

Local lawmakers are putting pressure on Gov. Rick Scott and federal officials to find a permanent solution. Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-Fort Myers), in a letter to Scott on Tuesday, asked the governor to consider declaring a state of emergency for Lee County and surrounding areas. Her letter came with an invitation for Scott to tour Southwest Florida “to see the places and people that have (been) negatively affected.”

Congressman Curt Clawson (R-Florida) introduced emergency legislation last week that would expedite Everglades restoration so overflow from Lake Okeechobee could eventually be directed to the wetland preserve.

But even that won’t be enough, he said.

“Unless we buy some land, unless we buy a flow-way like the option that we had last year to buy the sugar lands — unless we do something like that, there’ll be years that we can’t outrun the rain,” he said.

Ruane said he and Clawson have met with U.S. Sugar regarding purchasing lands south of the lake. Those discussions are ongoing, he said.

Water levels

The mayors of Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Estero, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel said they will challenge the Corps of Engineers to review the number of improvements made at the dike and to also analyze their risk assessment protocols.

“We are not looking for people to be at risk, but we also want to look at the potential investment that was made by taxpayers around the dike, because there have been improvements,” Ruane said. “If we can qualify the $500 million in improvements, can we hold more water at the lake? What is an accurate water level?”

Lake Okeechobee covers 730 square miles across South Florida and has an average depth of nine feet.

As of late Tuesday, the lake had a depth of 16.36 feet.

More than 3.7 billion gallons of lake water is being released daily into the Caloosahatchee River. About 2 billion gallons are also being released to the east coast through the St. Lucie River.

The Corps of Engineers have said they cannot afford to stop the releases because water levels rise even after rainfall has stopped.

The Lee County mayors said they will meet monthly regarding the issue.

“The good thing in any type of emergency, it’s all hands on deck,” Ruane said. “It’s everybody across the deck and we need to continue this momentum to come up with solutions and not let it go away like we have in the past.”