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County, local officials blast Lake Okeechobee plan

By NATHAN MAYBERG / nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com - | Jul 28, 2021

NATHAN MAYBERG Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ruane listens to Cape Coral Mayor John Gunter as Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais looks on behind him on July 28 at the Lee County Administration Building in Fort Myers during a meeting with Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ruane sat across from Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville district of the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers, in the Lee County Administration Building conference room and denounced the plan Kelly brought forward to manage Lake Okeechobee releases.

Joined at the July 26 meeting by political leaders from Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and Cape Coral, Ruane vowed to fight the proposed manual by the Army Corps as presently constituted. The manual sets the guidance on how Lake Okeechobee is managed.

The releases planned for Lee County into the Calooshatchee River could create a situation even worse than what the county experienced in 2018 if there was to be a season of heavy rain, Ruane stated.

“We need open heart surgery,” he said after the meeting in describing how much work was needed to remedy the plan to one that would be acceptable for Lee County.

Lee County Government consultant Dan DeLisi described the manual as a “train wreck” and said he was “dismayed” with the proposals by the Army Corps. He said the bulk of the problem lies in a “huge inequity of flows and releases,” which will direct less flows to eastern Florida and more to Lee County’s waters.

NATHAN MAYBERG Colonel Andrew Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Jacksonville district, took a lot of criticism on July 28 in Fort Myers for the Lake Okeechobee manual plan, which local officials are concerned could lead to more harmful releases in the future.

“We are asking for balance,” DeLisi said, adding that the changes were “not a fair distribution.”

Ruane expressed alarm at how quickly the manual is being pushed forward and vowed to fight it.

“It seems like it is being rammed down our throat,” he said. “I can assure you that if that is the case, we can’t have this. I will do whatever I have to in my will power to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Kelly said there was still some “flexibility” and more decisions and changes could be made on the direction of the plan over the next month. After that, models of the newly planned flows and releases will be distributed in September. The initial set of guidance will be released in September and October. Between October and February, there will be further public input. The final approval of the plan is not expected until September 2022 after federal agencies review it.

Ruane explained that Lee County cannot afford to undergo the devastating economic impacts that he said “crushed” the area in 2018 during the red tide outbreak.

Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith said she was cautiously optimistic, but that the water releases had to be equally distributed.

“I truly believe that we have been overlooked and underprotected for a really long time,” she said.

Smith said she believes that the plan is a starting point.

“I know that all of us are tied to the economy of our water quality,” she said.

Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy described how badly Fort Myers Beach was hurt by the 2018 red tide event, and how it laid waste to marine life and “shut down” tourism.

“Is this the best you can do?” Cape Coral Mayor John Gunter asked Kelly.

Jason Engle, with the Army Corps, said “there’s not a lot of win-wins left.”

Kelly said after the meeting he was “not terribly surprised” by the reaction.

“We’ve been getting some letters” since the manual was first released last week, he said.

“We completely understand where the Caloosahatchee stakeholders are,” Kelly said.