Army Corps meeting maxed out
By CJ HADDAD
A mass assembly of water-quality advocates piled into the Cape Coral Yacht Club Ballroom Tuesday afternoon, while even more lined up outside- denied entry due to the massive turnout and maxing-out of the building’s capacity.
Lieutenant Col. Jennifer A. Reynolds, Deputy District Commander for South Florida in the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, had the difficult task of fielding questions and complaints from Cape Coral and Southwest Florida residents who feel so passionately about the blue-green algae that is harming their health, businesses and economy.
Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello, along with Rep. Dane Eagle and District 4 Lee County Commis-sioner Brian Hamman were also present to soak in what residents had to say.
“I wish I had a better, easy solution, but I don’t,” Reynolds told the audience in response to a question from an audience member.
Everything and anything water-quality related was discussed at the open forum – from Lake Okeechobee releases, to why the water is so nutrient-laden and how the blooms are hazardous to the public’s health was deliberated.
Reynolds spoke of reservoir storage projects happening in surrounding areas of Lake Okeechobee that she called “prevalent” and could help with the number of releases east and west into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
She said these projects, especially when they are all completed and working in unison, will see the number of releases necessary drop.
Though in big rain events, releases are inevitable.
The Corps is currently working on the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule, along with South Florida Water Management District – and is taking input from the public and experts alike.
The rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike was also touched on by Reynolds, as she said they expect to finish in 2022.
“When the dike reaches 18 feet-plus, it starts to fail,” she said. “Rehabilitation will increase our water management options.”
Right now, the water level is at 14.5 feet. When rain events happen, the levels rise three to four feet, putting it around the danger levels of 18 feet.
Reynolds stated the releases are to keep water levels in Lake Okeechobee stable and make it able to take on a big rain event at any time.
After her presentation, Reynolds took just about two hours to answer everyone who had a question about what exactly is going on, no matter what the attitude or demeanor of the crowd was shaping up to be.
“She did a good job, she took a lot of shots today. She was put up here to take shots and she handled it well,” said Capt. David Menist, Florida’s Son Fishing Charter’s owner and passionate water quality promoter.
“I’m glad we had the numbers that we had today, this is what we need. We needed to fill this room and be heard,” he continued. “Army Corps of Engineers danced around a lot of questions when it came to Big Sugar and it came to Rick Scott. She was very informational, but, her hands are tied as well.”
The question-and-answer portion certainly brought out some of the bad blood in the crowd when it came to why this is happening in residents’ backyards.
A stand out question came from an audience member who asked, “Are we collateral damage at this point?” To which Reynolds replied, “That is the hardest question to answer. Solutions (long-term) are years down the line. If it rains a lot, we’re in trouble.”
The question most folks seemed to have on their mind – and were most upset at receiving no definitive answer – was the question of the heath effects people are suffering and potentially unknowingly suffering from.
“Where my frustrations comes from is when we ask the questions like ‘Is this harmful to us?’ and they don’t have an answer. ‘When is this going to change?’ there’s no answer,” Menist said.
Cape Coral resident Will Zariske who was in attendance, lives on his sailboat in Rosen Park Marina with his pregnant wife. They have become campaigners for clean water and held signs that said “Stop poisoning us” and “What about the live-aboards?”
“I think it was a lot of rhetoric and a lot of the same thing. I wish I could say it was better, but I don’t see a solution to this anytime soon,” he said of the meeting, which he had to watch half of from outside with the rest of those denied entry.
“This solution should have been done 10 years ago,” he expressed. “They continue to allow the water releases and as soon as they do that, it’s just going to continue. They need to shut off the water releases.”
Though he may not have heard the immediate action he was looking for, the turnout for the meeting was a positive step.
“I’m glad a lot of people are becoming more proactive and aware about the situation,” Zariske said.
As for Capt. Menist, all he said was, he will continue to be hopeful.
“I gotta believe that, or else, what am I doing here?” he responded when asked if he thinks the Corps is on the right track.
“If we lose hope, we lose it all. Hope. Hope for my son. Our children and our grandchildren, this is what we’re saving this for,” he said. “We already know what condition we’re in right now. But it’s about our children and our children’s children.”
For additional information on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Pro-ject and to email your comments to the Corps, visit www.saj.usace.army.mil /LOWRP/.
Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj