Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)
Florida Issues: What to do about Lake Okeechobee?
State candidates and advocacy groups in Florida have made water a central issue in this year’s elections. One big debate deals with Lake Okeechobee and what do with polluted water flowing into and out of it.
Coffee-colored water gurgles near the Franklin dam and flows down the Caloosahatchee River roughly 30 miles from Fort Myers.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing this water from Lake Okeechobee. So it doesn’t overflow. But, Jennifer Hecker with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida says this water contains pollutants called nutrients. She says they can intensify the algal blooms plaguing beaches and waterways in parts of South Florida.
“It can also feed red tide offshore and cause that to be more frequent and severe and as a result of those harmful algae’s,” she said. “We can see toxins being produced that can impact aquatic so there’s a domino effect if you will.”
That effect also has an economic side. Coastal communities that are heavily dependent on fishing and tourism have already taken financial losses.
Before the Everglades were drained and settled, water flowed through marshes from the lake down to the bottom of the state. Now, a massive man-made system of canals steers, holds and treats water.
Everglades restoration plans are gaining momentum, but environmentalists say they’re not enough.
Political hopefuls like U.S. House democratic candidate Tim Canova have picked up their cause. “Water, it’s our most precious resource and the future of Florida depends on it,” said Canova.
Canova lost in the primary, but the idea he and others support is for the state to buy land below Lake Okeechobee. Water would be stored and treated there before heading into Everglades National Park.
A recent proposal by incoming Florida senate president Joe Negron would buy thousands of acres of agricultural land for this purpose.
People Live And Work In The Region
Farmer Alan Hammock uses a machete to cut a tall green sugarcane stalk on his Glades County farm.
“Probably this stalk has had a little bit of wind damage. Probably the plant told itself ‘hey we’re getting to die,” said Hammock. “It’s time to start growing again and reproduce.’”
Hammock runs Frierson Farms. It borders where advocates want the state to buy land.
His wife Ardis feels targeted because this area is rural. She said the Everglades also used to encompass what are now more developed parts of South Florida.
“What’s the difference in telling people there that I’m sorry but we shouldn’t have built your home,” she asked.
Ardis supports another solution water managers are looking into. It involves storing water in the northern part of the state before it even gets to Lake Okeechobee.
Ardis said she feels buying agricultural land in the region could upend the local economy and cause people to lose their jobs.
“I love the way of life that’s here,” said Ardis. “For me, I do live in paradise. I do live the sweet life, and I want it to continue.”
People in coastal areas feel the same way. They’re worried about the continued effects of pollution on their tourism and fishing industries. Jennifer Hecker with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said if officials wanted to buy the land there are programs available that could help communities south of the lake.
“To help train people and be able to give them resources so they that can be able to switch industries or for local governments who are losing property taxes to be able to receive assistance from the federal government to offset those loses,” said Hecker.
This argument is playing out in elections across the state this year. Environmental groups have asked politicians to sign a pledge to support buying land south of Lake Okeechobee.
Hecker said this issue should not pit coastal and inland communities against each other. She said they’re in this together, that everyone needs clean, fresh water.
This story appeared on WMFE, here.