SWFL Water Crisis: Projects surrounding Lake Okeechobee planned to restore water flow to the Everglades

From Southwest Florida beaches to the shores of Lake Okeechobee and every river and creek in between, water drives the health of the environment, economy, and us.

In Florida, water once slowly flowed from north to south but after what some call “replumbing” water now moves east and west while not enough of it goes south.

Now, there are dozens of projects surrounding Lake Okeechobee in hopes to restore the natural flow.

Projects across the state are in the works to protect water quality and quantity.

“I’ve lived here on the shores of Lake Okeechobee ever since I was four years old,” said Scott Martin, co-founder of the Anglers for Lake Okeechobee.

Over the years he’s watched his community and the ecology of the lake change.

“Where we’re sitting right now there is hardly any submerged vegetation,” Martin said.

More submerged vegetation helps filter and clean the lake’s water. And it doesn’t hurt the fishing.

It’s not only fishermen who need the lake.

Sugarcane grower Carl Perry’s farm is located southwest of Lake Okeechobee. He relies on the water to fuel his farm. He also gets outside help to keep his land environmentally friendly.

“We use science,” Perry said.

Perry said they take soil samples and leaf samples to send to the lab and the results are overseen with a certified crop adviser.

“It’s just like going to the doctor,” Perry said. “He takes a little blood, he’ll look at it, he says what vitamins you need. Well, this guy is telling us what products we need to put on our fields.”

Both Perry and Martin have different views of Lake Okeechobee but each has a vested interest in protecting its water and environment.

It will take all pieces of the puzzle from all sides of the Lake to bring the area back to its former glory.

State. Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, introduced a bill to set sights on storage north of Lake Okeechobee.

“We’re going to have these aquifer storage and recovery wells. And what these do is this takes water out of the Kissimmee River, mostly during the wet season, when we have so much water coming through, it then treats it to drinking water levels before it puts it in the upper Floridan aquifer,” Brodeur said.

The priority with the water restoration projects for the Everglades lies to the south, said Capt. Chris Wittman, co-founder of Captains for Clean Water.

South of the lake is the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project which will clean and store water.

It’s something Captains for Clean Water has set its sights on.

“Those projects give us the greatest amount of benefit to the most Floridians,” Wittman said.

Congressman Briant Mast said he hopes to minimize discharges from the east to the west coasts to prevent harmful algal blooms like in 2016 and 2018.

“We think that there’s more capacity to send water south so that both coasts don’t have to be flooded,” said Mast, a Republican from Palm City. “The west coast of Florida gets screwed two times a year with Lake Okeechobee management. You don’t get the water that you need in the winter, and you get way too much water in the summertime.”

“This is an opportunity to fix that,” Mast added.

Juggling all the needs of communities and environments around the lake falls under CERP, or the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

James Evans, environmental policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, knows how important it is to balance all of those needs.

“The goal of CERP is to restore the quality, quality, timing and distribution of freshwater flows to the Everglades and also restore the freshwater flows to the estuaries,” Evans said.

The projects include storing, filtering and moving water. Taken all together, they are meant to restore the flow seamlessly.

Chauncey Goss, chair of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, said the need for these projects is to restore the water flow.

“What we’re trying to do is restore all of that and make sure that we can get the flows right to the estuaries and make sure that the water goes back and also to the Everglades which is just an enormous area that needs to be hydrated,” Goss said.

Brodeur, of Sanford, said there is no “magic bullet” for what goes on.

“For so long, I think everybody thought, well, we can just tame it. And now we’ve come to the realization you probably can’t and so it’s best to let it do what it does naturally,” Brodeur said.

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For up-to-date information on water issues plaguing Southwest Florida, you can visit WINK News’ Water page.

 

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Melissa Montoya
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