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Islanders protest polluted Lake ‘O’ releases

By Staff | Aug 24, 2013

Protestors near the bridge to Sanibel Island. Mckenzie Cassidy.

Protestors lined the streets into Sanibel Island this weekend to shine the spotlight on poor water quality.

They carried signs that read: “Dunk City, Not Dump City” and “Stop the Flow at Lake O.”

Environmental officials, residents and tourists began questioning local water quality after recent freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee. This summer had 140 to 170 percent more rainfall than normal, according to Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans, and the Army Corps of Engineers, who oversee the Herbert Hoover Dike System, released an additional three feet of water.

Lake Okeechobee was holding 15.7 feet of water, and even though it was designed to hold more, the aging dike system is in danger of failing because of a lack of investment.

Governor Rick Scott announced on Wednesday that the Corps will be reducing the release flow by as much as 57 percent. He also committed $40 million towards the completion of the C-44 Storm Water Treatment Area, a reservoir and treatment zone designed to reduce nutrients, pesticides, and suspended materials from runoff into St. Lucie County.

Federa and state commitments to South Florida environmental projects. Office of Governor Rick Scott.

According to Scott, the lack of federal funding was to blame for bad water quality. The State of Florida and the federal government have a 50-50 cost sharing agreement for South Florida environmental projects, yet the state has invested $2.5 billion and the federal government only $989 million. He said they owe $1.6 billion in local investments.

Furthermore, toxic exposures could be mitigated through the C-43 reservoir project, which stores water in the western portion of the lake to be incrementally released into the Caloosahatchee River Basin, but Congress has yet to authorize all of the projects needed for the reservoir.

Kenny DiBiase, 18, attended the protest with his family. Earlier this year, the high school senior completed an Eagle Scout project where he posted “Protect Our Waters” signs across Sanibel Island. His campaign stressed local stewardship and adherence to environmental laws, and this weekend he joined others in demonstrating against the releases.

“I saw the thing on Facebook and I knew I had to come,” he said. “Something is wrong and I knew I had to do something.”

Perhaps most disappointing for DiBiase was the reaction from state and federal politicians, who he said have been complacent until recently. He said the feedback he had received from them was to hope for a non-rainy season.

Protestors near the bridge to Sanibel Island. Mckenzie Cassidy.

A Fort Myers Beach business owner, Gretchen Dambaugh, said she wanted the state to pitch in to stop polluted waters from entering local estuaries.

“We’re hoping people will be able to pitch in and everyone is hoping if you get together, they will listen,” she said.

Dambaugh, an avid boater, took a picture of the water last June and it was clear and teal, yet this summer it’s been an amber color. Three weeks ago, at Redfish Pass, Dambaugh found dead sea grass piled high enough to reach the middle of her calf.

As a business owner, she was concerned that tourists won’t come to Sanibel Island or other local beaches because of dead sea life piled on the sand.

She protested on Saturday morning with her friend Kim Houser.

“It’s upsetting. This is worse than the oil spill,” said Houser.

Jonathan Tongyai, president of the Sanibel-Captiva Kiwanis Club, said the water quality was the worst he’s ever seen since moving to the island in 1972. He organized the rally to grab the attention of state and federal politicians and demand they find a solution to the problem.

“Everywhere I go people are talking about it and they’re upset about it. The only way we’re going to get the attention of the politicians is to make sure they know their voters are angry,” he said.