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Lake discharges discussed at SFWMD meeting

By Staff | Jun 10, 2016

The discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee have had a major effect on the estuaries to the east and west.

But if you’re looking for a silver bullet solution, it’s going to be hard to find.

That was the response from the South Florida Water Management District Board as it held its monthly meeting in Lee County Commissioners Chambers on Thursday.

The SFWMD is an organization that rotates its meetings throughout the 16 counties it represents, and Lee County was next in the rotation.

Area politicians, activists and others attended the meeting, where numerous topics of local interest were discussed, from the lake discharges, to the C-43 reservoir now under construction, to storage and how to get water to the south to restore the Everglades.

“Today was an opportunity to meet with the stakeholders and get input from them and share information from some the projects going on,” said Phil Flood regional representative for the SFWMD in Fort Myers. “There are the local and reginal efforts and some of the planning focused on Everglades restoration and storage and treatment north and south of the lake.”

Commissioner Frank Mann opened the meeting with a welcome, praise for the hard work that’s being done, and a review of what happens every time water is discharged from Lake O.

“Lee County gets the lion’s share. Cape Coral and its 400 miles of canals, our estuaries and Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach are especially sensitive to releases,” Mann said. “We are the recipients of things that start in Orlando.”

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and State Reps. Mike Caldwell and Heather Fitzenhagen also made brief comments.

“We advocate for water flow south. Take it to heart because we stand behind our desire for safe and clean water,” Fitzenhagen said.

Among the presenters were Roland Ottolini, who discussed the efforts to reduce the nitrogen levels by 22 percent in the Caloosahatchee through filtering in the preserves and the area’s fertilizer campaign, and Terrie Bates, who said the record rainfall over the winter resulted in the flood plains to the north not drying sufficiently and dissolved oxygen that produced fish kill last month.

Bates added, the rain also had the beneficial effect of bringing back the seagrass and tapegrass, the latter of which has been planted in the Caloosahatchee in hopes of restoring it.

John Matnik discussed the C-43 reservoir and how it will store some of the Caloosahatchee runoff, while Steve Sentes talked about how the watersheds north of the river would further store water.

As far as north and south are concerned, planners were looking at possible places to store water north of the river, while an expedited plan to restore the western portion of the Everglades, set to begin in 2016, was also discussed.

During public comment, reaction was mixed. Former commissioner Ray Judah said they are underestimating the need for storage, as C-43 would only store 10 to 15 percent of excess water and that the government needs to purchase extra land south of the lake.

“It’s discouraging the SFWMD board is not taking seriously the regional approach to the Lake Okeechobee watershed. They’re focused on additional storage north of the lake, which is good, but we also need it to the south,” Judah said. “We need to store, it, treat, it and send it to the Everglades to recharge it and stop the discharges to the east and west.”

Charles Messina said the politicians and the board are simply puppets to Big Sugar and that they have also taken money from them to fund their initiatives and campaigns.

Raeann Wessel, of the Natural Resource Policy Director Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, approved the storage to the north, but that it wouldn’t address the problems to the south, east and west.

SFWMD board member James Moran responded that moving water south wasn’t a silver bullet.

“We can’t destroy the commercial business there to do it. That wouldn’t be smart. It’s a complex problem with complex solutions,” Moran said. “Buying land to solve the problem is not the truth.”

“The real problem are the septic tanks that are along the river. Responsibility has to be taken locally,” board member Melanie Peterson said.

“I’m glad they came here and it’s very timely because we’re in crisis mode and discussing the planning process for next-step solutions,” Benacquisto said. “We want to be part of that discussion and planning concurrently north and south of the lake and I was glad to visit with them today.”