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Concerned communities converge in Clewiston

By Staff | Jul 14, 2018

County Road 74 spans 42 miles from Punta Gorda into the sprawling wide open of central Florida. It’s not often heavily trafficked.

But Saturday morning, a caravan of more than 40 cars trekked from Laishley Park in Punta Gorda across 74, through Moore Haven, to the Clewiston Boat Ramp to make a stand for clean water. From the east coast, another group made a similar trip. The assorted group of fishermen, concerned residents and marine outfitters were called together by Jason Greer, a charter fishing captain, to make the journey for the “Save Our Fisheries Convoy.”

But what the more than 100 participants didn’t expect? A gathering of Clewiston residents and fishermen, cooking up hot dogs and waiting to greet them at the boat ramp.

Greer, with West Wall Outfitters, organized the convoy to make a stand for those being effected by freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. The Caloosahatchee is now inundated with toxic blue-green algae in some parts, fed by nutrient-laden fresh water.

“I wanted to show unity through the community, in the west and east coasts and central areas,” he said. “We have problems, we have solutions, and we need those done.”

Some showed up to defend the agricultural interests of the Clewiston area, with posters and shirts reading “Don’t like us? Don’t Eat!” and “Run off with your coastal run-off.”

Many of the Clewiston-area people in attendance wore shirts that said “#Slow the Flow, #Let it Grow.”

The residents from the Clewiston area want clean water too – but they don’t want the bulk of blame to be laid on their lake.

“We inherit the problem,” said Ramon Iglesias, general manager of Roland & Mary Ann Martins Marina & Resort. “We need to slow the flow coming into Lake Okeechobee.”

Lake Okeechobee receives flow from the Kissimmee River watershed – but Iglesias, who organized #SlowtheFlow, said it’s not treated enough before arriving in the lake filled with fertilizer run off and other nutrients that promote algae growth. If the flow south to the lake was slowed down, with a treatment area to filter the water, then Lake O could be cleaned up.

“If you have a bathtub that’s overflowing, are you going to mop the floor or turn off the water?” he said.

The second hashtag, #LetItGrow, is in reference to what the general group believes is bad practice in aquatic vegetation management. Around the outer edges of the lake, tall grasses and other aquatic vegetation pop up through the shallower water. But the rest is sprayed to keep the lake from being overgrown, and Iglesias said it’s being over-sprayed. The vegetation serves and important role in filtering and cleaning the water.

“Stop pouring chemicals into the water, let the lake filter it,” he said.

The City of Clewiston was ready and waiting for the convoy, as well; a platform was set up. The Mayor of Clewiston, Mali Gardner, invited Greer and Iglesias, as well as Okeechobee fishing captain Scott Martin and District 80 Representative Byron Donalds, to speak and welcomed the out-of-towners to “the sweetest town in America.”

“Lake O is the liquid heart of the Everglades,” Gardner said. “We’re tired of being a political stunt. We demand, slow the flow into Lake O. Otherwise, we have to send it east, west and south.”

Gardner said the groups needed to work together to demand the expedited completion of projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP), passed in 2008.

“If they’re not done, we’ll be here next year, and the year after,” she said.

Greer told the crowd he hadn’t brought the coastal communities in to point fingers, but to stand together as Floridians for clean water.

“Without clean water, we’re nothing,” he said. “Without the Everglades, we don’t have a Florida.”

He wasn’t expecting the Clewiston reception, but he said he was glad they were there so the communities, all affected by Lake Okeechobee, could come together for conversation and unity in the fight for clean water.

Two gubernatorial candidates made appearances Saturday. U.S. Representative Ronald DeSantis, a Republican candidate; joined the Save Our Fisheries Convoy as it gathered in Punta Gorda. He’s worked with Representative Francis Rooney to get funding from the federal government for the EAA reservoir, and called his Republican opponent, Adam Putnam, a “wholly-owned subsidiary of U.S. Sugar.”

“It’s a problem now, I don’t want to wait years,” he said. “People need relief.”

Democratic candidate Chris King of Orlando attended the meeting point in Clewiston.

“Pitting agriculture versus the environment, those are false choices,” he said. “I’m here in solidarity with the boaters, fishing, environmentalists who are sick and tired.”

He claims he won’t be taking any money from sugar companies – not vilify them, he said, but to prove he’s independent from that influence.

Clewiston boating and fishing captains brought their vessels to the boat ramp, offering rides out to tour the lake.

Lake Okeechobee has an algal bloom covering most of the lake visible from space; and even from a boat, the particles of algae could easily be seen sifting through the lake’s water. In the canal leading from the ramp to the lock on the Herbert Hoover Dike, bright green blooms clustered against the banks.

Guides pointed out the vegetation in the lake, describing how it used to grow further into the lake but has been reduced, keeping the lake from filtering out nutrients.

“Fishermen are probably some people at the highest level of environmentalists,” said Neal Stark, a charter captain with American Everglades Guides. “We don’t want dirty water.”

Stark and Jim Costabile of Ultimate Bass Fishing Adventures said they could remember when the water was “gin clear” and the sandy bottom was visible. Now the lake’s bottom doesn’t get enough sunlight to promote vegetation growth.

“It’s cool to see everybody from the east and west coasts – people who care,” Stark said.