By: Katrina Elsken, Lake Okeechobee News
CLEWISTON — John Boy Auditorium was packed Monday night with Lake Okeechobee area residents concerned about the U.S. Arny Corps of Engineers plan to write a new regulation schedule for the Big O.
Gov. Ron Desantis and Congressman Brian Mast are lobbying for a lower lake schedule, which would set the minimum level at 10.5 ft., two feet lower than the current schedule, to reduce the risk of freshwater releases to the coastal estuaries during the rainy season.
Many lake area residents object to that plan, due to concerns about water supply and the loss of navigation on the Big O.
Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said some of the priorities have changed since the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) was adopted in 2008. “The coasts have a lot more people than the counties in the interior,” she said. “It is doubly important to make your voices heard.”
She encouraged those who do not comment at a public meeting to send their written comments by mail or email.
Tim Gysin, project manager for Lake Okeechobee Operating System Manual (LOSOM) effort explained that the Herbert Hoover dike is part of the Central and Southern Florida Project. LOSOM is “a new start, a clean slate,” he said. “This is not an update to the existing schedule.”
“We are not going to be recommending any new infrastructure as part of this effort,” Mr. Gysin explained. “We will be looking at projects already under construction as part of CERP.” Changes in the lake schedule are under discussion now, he said because the rehab on the Herbert Hoover Dike will be complete in 2022. The C-44 and C-43 reservoirs will also be completed within the next five years. In addition, the federal Water Resources Development Act of 2018 called for a review of the lake regulation schedule. LOSOM planning and development is scheduled to be completed by 2022.
Hundreds crowded into the auditorium. Nearly 50 people turned in requests to speak at the Feb. 11 meeting.
“Do not ignore that 95 percent of the water that flows into Lake Okeechobee flows from the north,” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner.
“Using arbitrary numbers for political expediency is not the answer,” she said, urging the corps to base lake schedule decisions on the historical data.
“There are tens of thousands of us in our area vs. the millions who are on the coast,” said Clewiston City Commissioner Kristine Petersen. “We need to be heard. There have been a lot of decisions that have been made along the way, the spraying of the grasses, the septic tanks, the level of the lake.”
She said the farms in the EAA help feed the state and the nation.
“Remember this is where your vegetables come from,” she said.
“People who are lifelong farmers, the people who put their blood, sweat and tears into the Glades need to be heard,” she said.
“We’re concerned about the lives around the lake,” said Hendry County Commissioner Emma Bryd. “We might be little people to you, but we are important … The fishermen are important. The farmers are important,” she said.
“Don’t throw blame. Don’t forget the work that was already done,” she said.
“We live and work directly on Lake Okeechobee,” said Pahokee Mayor Keith W. Babb Jr.
“We are unanimously opposed to the lowering of the lake to 10.5 ft. That would have a devastating negative effect on our community. We wouldn’t be able to get boats in and out of the marina at that level,” he said,
He said Pahokee already suffers from 25 percent unemployment. “If you lower the lake to 10.5 ft., what will happen when a drought comes? The farmers will not be able to draw water to supply their crops. They will have to lay off employees,” he said.
“There are numerous things we seem to be focused on. The primary and principal thing we should be focused on is sitting in these chairs. The lives of the people should be paramount,” said Steve Nolin, president of the Belle Glade Chamber of Commerce.
“Lake levels are everyone’s concern. The integrity of the dike is everyone’s concern, especially to us who live around the lake. That concern should not be driven by algae, red tide, and water discharges that you and I have absolutely no control over.
“We have some of the smartest people in the world and yet they haven’t figured out where the dirty water is coming from,” he said. “Start at the top! Work your way down.”
“Forty-five years ago, I was elected as a county commissioner,” said Philip Rowland. “For 45 years I have been attending meetings about Lake Okeechobee. There are very few times the people have been listened to….