Northern water flow into Lake O a cause for quality issues

While many feel Lake Okeechobee’s vast waters are to blame for the water quality issues in the state, others are looking north. We spoke to an expert who has watched the issues evolve.

Born and raised in Clewiston, Ramon Iglesias, co-founder of Anglers for Lake Okeechobee, grew up enjoying Lake O, and he also is the general manager of Roland & Mary Ann Martin’s Marina & Resort.

“Don’t judge Lake Okeechobee unless you’ve come out here and been on the water,” Iglesias said.

Iglesias is concerned about the amount of water and what’s in it when it enters from the north.

“We’re fighting for storage north of the lake,” Iglesias said.

A map from South Florida Water Management District gives a better idea of how water from the north flows into Lake O and then eventually south, contributing to the need for releases. While there aren’t releases right now, that could change.

“If you had a child and that child’s in the tub, and water’s just flowing over that tub because they just didn’t turn the water off, would you mop up the floor or shut off the water first?” Iglesias said.

SFWMD announced Friday it will hold water north of Lake O to keep it from entering the lake.

Dr. Mike Parsons, FGCU professor and member of Gov. DeSantis’ Blue-Green Algae Task Force, said it’s not a matter of water quantity but quality.

“It’s a much different beast, I guess, north of the lake,” Parsons said. “There’s a lot more landowners. There’s a lot more different use. You have differences in soil, so it’s a more complicated issue. So it’s not as easy to manage the nutrients there.”

And Parsons said it’s an issue the task force plans to undertake.

“The northern watershed is our primary focus right now,” Parsons said. “And when you look at the numbers, somewhere on the order of 78 to 80 percent of all the nitrogen coming into Lake Okeechobee is from that northern watershed.”

Iglesias believes it will take everyone coming together to find a solution.

“The water quality issues that we face today in Florida is not a Lake Okeechobee issue,” Iglesias said.

State of Lake O after Hurricane Dorian 

Lake Okeechobee held up well when Hurricane Dorian skated up along the coast of the state.

There are no Lake O releases scheduled by the state’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Caloosahatchee River currently, which comes as welcomed news to Southwest Florida.

But the army corps said all eyes are on the Atlantic and said there is no room for letting its guard down.

While Hurricane Dorian was a formidable storm, devastating northern Bahamas, Lake O and Florida was largely spared from its wrath.

“I had thought, given earlier projections, that we would have high volume releases from Lake Okeechobee starting about a week after the storm passed,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, commander at the army corps in Jacksonville. “Some of those projections, as you know, have reduced, and it looks like it’s going to be dry for a week.”

SFWMD has its plan for the lake since the storm has gone.

“We are moving water to our storage area south of the lake,” Executive Director Drew Bartlett said. “And then we’ll move it from there into the water conservation areas and ultimately to Everglades National Park.”

And the Hebert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake held up very well. It’s also on target for completion of ongoing repairs in 2022.

“Every day of construction is a better day for the dike,” Kelly said.

The corps will keep its plans in place: No releases east or west, while SFWMD holds water north. And the army corps will readdress the lake’s scheduled releases next week.

But they can’t celebrate just yet.

“My primary concern at this point is the next one coming,” Kelly said.

And while storms can be unpredictable, the army corps said its ready whatever comes its way.

“At this stage, we are more prepared than ever to be able to handle anything coming off the Atlantic.”

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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