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County commission to send letter of opposition on LOSOM

By NATHAN MAYBERG / nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com - | Aug 3, 2021

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners made it official today, unanimously voting to oppose the proposed Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual and to send a letter expressing its disapproval to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A lawsuit could be the next step.

Commission Chairman Kevin Ruane called last week’s meeting with Col. Andrew Kelly, the commander of the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps, to be “rather frustrating.”

In the letter from Ruane approved by the commissioners, the chairman stated that “the overall burden of flood control releases to the Caloosahatchee would increase.”

The option-of-choice manual selected by the Army Corps would “burden the Caloosahatchee with stressful and damaging discharges over extended periods of consecutive months causing irreparable harm to our fisheries and estuarine ecology.”

Today, Ruane said “the community is very concerned.” He said he has worked closely with the Army Corps to communicate the county’s perspective. Ruane added the county made a “great presentation” at last week’s meeting with Kelly, which included the county’s consultant and three mayors. The one positive he sees in the plan, dubbed Alternative CC, is on low-flow issues. Ruane said the county “will receive more low-flow issues” to balance the salinity in the estuaries.

The trouble is on the high flows into the Caloosahatchee River.

“If it is a 10-year wet period they will result in receiving 50 percent more high flows than we would in 2008,” Ruane said, adding “it’s a very frustrating process that is going on. I think we have done everything we possibly can do.”

Changes called for including requiring the Army Corps to more accurately report the actual contribution of fresh water to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary.

“Total measures should be measured at S-79,” Ruane said.

Discharges from Lake Okeechobee should be limited to no more than 2,100 cubic square feet per second at S-79, the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam, according to the county’s position.

In November, releases by the Army Corps from Lake Okeechobee were averaging more than 4,500 cubic feet per second, which is considered harmful to the estuary by the Calusa Waterkeeper. The Calusa Waterkeeper considers releases to reach the harmful level to the estuary when they reach 2,800 cubic square feet per second or more. The estuary was still receiving as much as 3,000 cubic square feet per second or more in December and high levels of red ride and fish kills were reported in late December in Lee County.

Ruane also called on the Army Corps to direct more of flows south.

Ruane said Kelly has said minor changes could be made to the plan, but Ruane stated that “major tweaks” were needed. Last week, Ruane said “open heart surgery” was needed for the manual, which will determine operation procedures for the next decade.

Today, Ruane called on the commissioners to make legal challenges an option.

District 5 Commissioner Frank Mann said he agreed with Ruane but said the county has been “ignored before” and asked “What big hammer do we got?”

Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch said a challenge under the Endangered Species Act could be made.

“The citizens of Lee County cannot take this anymore,” Ruane said.

He said the federal government was not acting fast enough.

“We have to live with this for 10 years,” Ruane said.

He said other government bodies may be willing to join the county in support and said he believes the county is united.

“Everybody is petrified because 2018 was not that long ago,” Ruane said.

“There is a point in time where you get punched in the mouth too much and you say no more,” he said. “This has got to stop.”

Ruane referred to his tenure as mayor of Sanibel, where he said hundreds of thousands of pounds of dead fish were picked up due to the red tide outbreak in 2018.

“I’m tired. This is our way of saying, ‘We will do what we have to do,'” he said.

Mann referred to the current political moment as being akin to the movie “Network” where the character Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, calls on people to yell out their window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Mann said the county has been getting hit with more runoff than anybody else and it will be that way “until we throw a fit.”

“We’re getting ready for the long run,” he said. “I’m with you.”