Naples News

East coast vs. west coast dispute simmers over Lake Okeechobee releases

By Charlie Whitehead


December 19, 2009


FORT MYERS — Every gallon of water collected in Lake Okeechobee during the dry season is a gallon that doesn’t flow down the Caloosahatchee River to keep salinity down and protect sea grasses.

But every gallon of water sent down the river is one that’s not available for thirsty east coast utilities or for sugar cane growers around the lake.

Somewhere in the middle is the balance a South Florida Water Management District committee is struggling to keep. The group met this past week for a day-long workshop in Fort Myers.

The extremes on each side are obvious, with east coast and agricultural interests looking to keep water in the lake for east coast drinking water and crop irrigation. West coast interests want enough freshwater from the lake to keep sea grasses and coastal estuaries healthy.

But both sides agree the lake management strategy should strive to keep the level above that point where conflicts begin.

That got harder when the new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule went into effect in 2008. The new schedule cut maximum lake height by a foot to protect the Herbert Hoover Dike that rims the lake.

Tom MacVicar, a member of the district’s Water Resources Advisory Commission who represents agricultural interests, said the schedule benefited the Caloosahatchee by establishing base flows and benefited the dike by lowering the lake level.

“Ag got nothing but harm,” he said. “The (schedule) was very heavy-handed and one-sided and developed in a hurry.”

West coast residents don’t see it that way.

Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah said he’d never seen evidence the schedule harmed agricultural interests, though keeping the lake level lower did reduce the high-water releases that also harm the river and estuary.

Barbara Miedema, a water commission member who represents the Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, said water restrictions and drought cost $100 million in lost crops in the last two years.

Judah cited an after-action report by the Corps of Engineers that said all of the river releases last year only knocked a little over an inch off the lake level.

“It’s insignificant to water supply and irrigation,” he said. “It’s very significant for the Caloosahatchee.”

While relative peace has prevailed for the past two years as dry weather has kept those major flushes to a minimum, Cal Neidrauer chief engineer in the district’s operations department, said the new system has yet to be tested by high water.

“If what we got in 2003, ‘04 and ‘05 happened again the system would have been trashed regardless,” Neidrauer said.

The district is revising protocols for management when lake levels begin to drop to the level in which conflicts begin to occur between various demands.

“We try to operate in such a way that it’s win-win,” said Susan Gray, chief scientist for the district’s restoration sciences department. “When we get to the area where there’s conflict we try to minimize the conflicts.”

Last year, coastal interests bristled when a decision to stop river releases was made hastily, they said.

Just a few weeks ago, water commission member Rae Ann Wessell of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation said the district board did it again.

At a Dec. 9 meeting, without public notice of the discussion, the board decided not to begin river releases.

“Once again with no notice there ended up being an extensive discussion about environmental releases,” she said. “It’s extremely aggravating.”

Gray urged the diverse interests to keep working for something with which they all can live.

“I’m hoping the long-term forecast is right and we have a wet winter,” she said Wednesday, prior to Friday’s 2-inch rainfall. “We need this.”