Map of South Florida hydrology and habitats. Indicating natural surface water flow routes supplying the swamps and wetlands, the diversion canals, and the protected areas. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1011. 1976

Lake Okeechobee's lower level debated among stakeholders

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (AP) — Lake Okeechobee is Florida's "Liquid Heart," and people who depend on it for irrigation, drinking water, recreation and their livelihoods are often in conflict on how to take care of it.

This year, the conflict has heated up because the Army Corps of Engineers has been keeping the level lower than usual. Some say it will save the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers from toxic algae blooms. Others claim it risks a devastating water shortage.

Mark Twain, who supposedly said: "Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over," would feel right at home at Lake Okeechobee.

Beginning early this year, the Corps began efforts to lower Lake Okeechobee, primarily with discharges to the St. Lucie River from Feb. 23 to March 31 and continuing discharges to the Caloosahatchee River, with two goals:

— Reduce the risk of needing large-scale discharges during the summer rainy season because of high-water threats to the Herbert Hoover Dike

The logic is pretty simple: The more water you get out of the lake during the dry season, the more space you have in the lake to take on rainwater during the wet season without a risk of dike failure or massive toxic algae blooms.

— Improve the growth of underwater plants that are a major part of the lake's ecosystem

The plants need shallow water — less than 12 feet in elevation for at least 30 days — to germinate and grow. Over the last few years, the lake has been too deep, and the range of underwater plants has dropped from more than 40,000 acres to around 5,000 acres.

Well, so far so good — at least for the plants.

Since the discharges started, the lake has dropped 1 foot, 7 1/2 inches, from about 12 feet, 10 inches to 11 feet, 3 inches Friday morning.

Most of that has been because of evaporation; the 8 billion gallons of water discharged to the St. Lucie River accounted for just about half an inch off the lake. Discharges to the Caloosahatchee are continuing.

"Since the Corps began taking the water down, the submerged vegetation has been doing really good," Lawrence Glenn, coastal systems administrator for the South Florida Water Management District, told the SFWMD board Thursday. "We're really getting coverage back."

The submerged vegetation helps clean the water and provides critical habitat for fish and aquatic life.

It also helps prevent toxic algae blooms, Glenn said, because the submerged plants compete with blue-green algae cells for nutrients in the water.

"What we're hoping is that they duke it out and that the submerged aquatic vegetation wins," he said.

Whether the lower lake level will prevent summer discharges remains to be seen, particularly if we have an active tropical storm season. Corps officials like to point to Hurricane Irma in September 2017, which raised the lake more than 3 feet — from a comfortable 13 feet, 8 inches to a dangerous 17 feet-plus, in less than a month.

Cross-state boaters and heartland marina operators say Lake O is too low.

Robert Lambert of Everglades Reserve Holding, a company looking to manage the 100-slip Pahokee Marina and Campground, said this week the channel entering the marina basin is just 3 feet, 6 inches deep. Vessels drawing more than that are damaging propellers and rudders.

"These are not the kind of repairs we want to be doing for our clients," John Helfrich, manager of River Forest Yachting Center, which has facilities on the C-43 Canal at LaBelle and the C-44 Canal near Stuart, told a meeting of commissioners from five lakeside counties Tuesday in Okeechobee. "What will happen if the lake gets lower, or is lower every year, is these clients will seek other routes and facilities."

Ramon Iglesias, general manager of Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina and Resort in Clewiston, said fishing clubs are canceling tournaments "and fishing other lakes. Others who plan to fish here are canceling their reservations. That adds up to lost room nights all around the lake, and lost business at area tackle shops and fuel sales."

Friday, the navigational depth of Route I of the Okeechobee Waterway was 5 feet, 2 inches, according to the Corps.

"I've seen it at 9 feet and we still fished it," said Capt. Mike Shellen of Buckhead Ridge, a 25-year fishing guide on the lake. "At this time of year, I'd rather have it low than high. When it's at 12 feet, it's optimal conditions for fishing."

Shellen said he's catching "35 to 50 bass per trip" and "all the bluegills you want to catch right now."

Lake Okeechobee is home to scores of wildlife ranging from marsh rabbits to wading birds and ducks to perhaps its most famous resident — the alligator.

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