Counties discuss lake issues

By MaryAnn Morris, INI Florida

14, September, 2007

Problems encountered due to low lake levels were among the topics of discussion at the Friday meeting of County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and Lake Worth Lagoon.

The group brings together representative commissioners of Okeechobee, Hendry, Glades, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Highlands, Osceola and Polk Counties. They gathered at 10 a.m. at the Okeechobee Civic Center to discuss the impacts of low water levels on Glades County’s sport fishing industry, the Northern Everglades Initiative, Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, the Herbert Hoover Dike Rehabilitation, water conditions both in the watershed and in the lake.

South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) had requested the Coalition’s support of their request to the Florida legislature for accelerated funding for the CERP projects.

The low water levels in Lake Okeechobee have made access for fishermen from Glades County to the lake almost impossible. Over time, the old canals in Glades County have carried silt down toward the lake, reducing their depth so boats cannot go to the lake. In Buckhead Ridge, the 2.5 mile long Pearce Canal, built in the 1950s, needs dredging before it can be used at all,” said Glades County Commissioner and coalition member, Russell Echols. “Add the silting from Hurricane Wilma, plus the lower lake levels -- what can be done? It is a problem when the lake gets down to about 14 feet; add the silting from Hurricane Wilma and you can’t use them at all.”

During the public comment period, Maureen Brady, a Buckhead Ridge resident, said that she had documents that stated that the legal responsibility for the Pearce Canal was given to the Central and Southern Flood Control District in the 1960s. SFWMD, as their successor, should be responsible.

Some of these canals were dug so long ago that in many cases, no one knows who would, or should, be responsible for their maintenance.

The Northern Everglades Initiative has been organized to comply with the state legislature’s mandate for a plan by February 1, 2008. Tom Teets of SFWMD’s Land Resource Dept. reported the progress on the area’s ecology, salinity of the estuaries, water supply, condition of the dike and phosphorous reduction. Five watersheds have been defined as contributing to the lake and each can be analyzed separately.

Phosphorus reduction levels can now be monitored by area. A proposed plan will provide 256,000 Acre-feet of storage for water north of the lake. The Kissimmee River restoration will hold back water to replenish groundwater north of the lake.

”This is just a start, I hope,” said Paul Gray of the Audubon Society. With more time, water managers will be able to tell us what it will take to get the water management system under a reasonable level of control.”

Kim Taplin, representative of the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) said public comments on the revised Lake Regulation Schedule are being evaluated before release of a final Schedule in early November.

Commissioner Ray Judah of Lee County complained that the changes in the lake schedule will affect the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries. Ms. Taplin replied that the issues of public safety concerned with the condition of the dike made the changes necessary. Although media have reported that the dike has only 38 percent of the strength of its original design against the action of wind-driven waves, that number will be revised with additional information the COE has provided to SFWMD. The criteria were changed after Hurricane Katrina.

Major Dominic Ciaramintaro of the COE reported that the revised plan for the dike rehabilitation, constrained by nearby homes, will include “relief wells,” (used up and down the Mississippi River) to carry excess leakage down into the soil where it will do no harm, the toe ditch filled and a much deeper cut-off wall will be constructed.

Three contractors will be working, including two European contractors, experienced in this construction in other parts of the world. These methods have been used and proven in other countries.

This reach will be completed in six years.

To complete the entire rehabilitation will take 17 years and cost an estimated $856 million.

When it came to the resolution to support SFWMD’s request for accelerated funding for the CERP projects, Commissioner Judah motioned to include construction of a spillway at the south end of the lake into the EAA included. This as not approved by the Coalition. By an eight to two vote, the Coalition voted to support the resolution as written.

Cal Neidrauer, engineer with SFWMD reported that we have had 100 consecutive days of the lowest minimum lake levels recorded. The National Climate Precipitation Outlook still shows that rain in November may be heavier than normal with the probability of hurricanes. That outlook has been revised Seven to nine hurricanes are still predicted and so far there have been three. But overall the 2007-08 dry season will be much drier that normal.

“How will the lake act?” Mr. Neiderauer answered his own question. “Depends on rainfall.”

Water restrictions will continue for the foreseeable future, he said

“If there is no significant rainfall,” he said” then by the beginning of the next wet season we could see lake levels as low as 6.5.

The only good news of the meeting came from Susan Gray, SFWMD, who reported that the lake water is exceptionally clear and aquatic plants have increased. Few algae blooms have been noted.

In housekeeping and organization matters, the Coalition’s 10 members reviewed and approved changes to their proposed by laws, then elected new officers for the coming year. Commissioner Cliff Betts, Jr., Okeechobee County was elected chairman, Commissioner Joe Smith, St. Lucie County, vice chairman. Each member-county of the coalition pays to support the coalition and these funds have been handled by Martin County. That will be continued.