By Ann Henson Feltgen, Florida Bulldog.org
While Floridians are anticipating the completion of the renovation to the 75-year-old Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee during 2020, more water discharges, like those that occurred this winter, will likely be required after the work is complete, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Our goal of the rehabilitation of the dike is to solve a public safety problem” of keeping nearby towns from flooding, said John Campbell, public affairs specialist with the Corps. “We don’t know the ecological problems that could occur if we keep the lake too high for too long. There’s not an unlimited amount of water that can be stored in Lake Okeechobee.”
The government has already spent in excess of $500 million to fix the dike.
This year El Nino turned Florida’s typically dry season into a wet season with 200 to 400 percent increases, depending on location, over the normal 12-inch dry season rainfall, according to the National Weather Service. When Lake Okeechobee gets too much rain, its decades-old dike, which protects nearby communities like Pahokee, Belle Glade and Clewiston from flooding, is in danger of failing from water pressure undermining the structure.
High-volume releases from the lake began in February. As water was pushed into the Caloosahatchee River and eventually flowed into the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Myers, a tea-colored bloom of water replaced the typically aqua color of the gulf. The fresh water, which is mixed with phosphates, fertilizer and farm waste dumped into Lake Okeechobee years earlier, mixes with saltwater, resulting in sea grass, fish and oyster kills throughout the area.
On the east coast, millions of gallons of tainted water poured out of the St. Lucie River, creating its own mess of dead fish. However, pollution along the Indian River is not related to the runoff from Lake Okeechobee, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
An economic assessment of damages is being conducted by surveying businesses in Lee, Martin, St. Lucie counties as well as other affected communities. As of March 23, 137 surveys have been returned with estimated losses to small businesses reaching as much as $15.5 million on both coasts.
The survey is being run through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity by its Florida Virtual Business Emergency Operations Center. Once tallied and analyzed, the results will be shared with state agencies that can offer small businesses emergency assistance, such as disaster bridge loans.
Lee County alone boasts five million visitors per year who generate about $3 billion during their visits. Fishing, shopping, eating and touring the area, which some call one of the last vestiges of “Old Florida,” are vacation highlights. Tourist season runs roughly from October through April.
Small business takes a hit
Ric Base, president of the Sanibel and Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, said the Lake Okeechobee releases are common in the summer, during the traditional wet season. He said locals are used to the tea-colored water. And while the releases pose ecological problems, they have never before affected the tourist economy.
On the islands, he said, some visiting anglers canceled their fishing trips and their short-term rentals. But he added that at the high cost of a weekly rental, many people stayed and found other things to do, including renting bicycles, visiting the numerous parks and wildlife refuges, shopping at mom-and-pop specialty shops that line the island and sampling the myriad restaurants.
“I don’t think anybody here will have to close their doors,” he said. “We made it through the recession very well. People were spending less, but they were still coming.”
Jim McCallion operates a small real estate business with his wife. He saw four home sales fall apart when the buyers heard of the discharge.
“We measure our sales in tens, not thousands like the big businesses,” he said. “We don’t know how much this will impact us; we don’t know how many people didn’t engage with us because they thought there was sewage in the water.”
McCallion claims people were misinformed by the media with misleading terms like “toxic bacteria” and “algae.”
“The color of the water was disturbing, it looked bad,” he said. But the brownish color was due to water flowing through mangrove-lined rivers, not sewage.
Because of the perception the water was impaired, the charter fishing business took a big hit, he said.
Daniel Andrews operates a fishing charter in Fort Myers and said his bookings are down by more than 50 percent from last year.
“Most guides are reporting their bookings are down between 20 to 90 percent,” he said in mid- March. “I usually have 10-14 charters per week. Now I have two to four per week.”
Hotel stays were down along the southwest coast during the first quarter of the year, according to county tourism reports. In Collier County, for example, hotel stays slipped 5.2 percent in March compared to the same period in 2015. Hotel stays in Lee County were off 6.7 percent overall for the first three months of 2016.
“According to reports from Lee County property managers, reservations for spring season 2016 suggest business will not be as strong as last spring,” says the report. “Thirty-three percent of those surveyed said their reservations are down compared with only 6 percent saying the same in 2015.”
No reason for the downtown is cited in the report, but a survey of visitors indicated that 13 percent disliked the water quality, compared to four percent in 2015.
Fishing guide Andrews has helped to form the nonprofit Captains for Clean Water to highlight the plight of the Everglades and enact a long-term solution.
Like others, he believes that discharges should flow south through the Everglades rather than west through the Caloosahatchee River and east along the St. Lucie River.
Andrews also agrees with the Everglades Restoration Project’s plan to purchase land near the lake to build water storage and treatment projects.
Those along the St. Lucie River appear to be faring better, with only about 20 of a small business impact surveys returned. However, some of their comments tell it all.
A St. Lucie County fish and tackle shop opener said he closed his doors for good at the end of March because he could not sustain his business.
Another said: “I want those responsible to be indicted and charged with endangering the health and wellbeing of 175,000 residents of Port St. Lucie by enabling our river to become an open sewer.”
A St. Lucie County dive service operator said: “Shame on you Florida.”
What is Being Done?
Since 2007 the Corps of Engineers has spent $500 million to shore up the dike around Lake Okeechobee, said Campbell with the Corps. He said as the project has moved along, more structural areas of concern were identified.
While he expects the work to be completed in 2020, “not all of the funding is in place,” he said.
“Some of the funding was upfront and some is appropriated yearly by Congress, which has fully supported this project.”
While the Corps is responsible for the lake, it is not responsible for the flow of the water and what it carries with it. That charge belongs to the State of Florida. The Legislature had penned a deal to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee to begin implementing the Everglades Restoration Plan, but backed away and the deal fell through last fall.
On March 17, Congressman Curt Clawson (R-FL) filed federal legislation to set aside $500 million for the U.S. Department of the Interior to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee.
“While land purchases have traditionally been the responsibility of the State of Florida, this bill would serve as another option to get water flow back into the Everglades at the soonest possible date,” according to a press release from Clawson’s office.
The bill was referred to the House Budget Committee where it was not acted upon
Meanwhile, Fort Myers officials are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Next year will show if this has lasting impacts,” said Matt Johnson, Fort Myers’ interim assistant city manager.
He said during the last discharge, his city beaches were not at all impacted, but “media frenzy and errant statements impacted us greatly the following year.
“The question now is what are they going to do to stop this from happening again.”