Coalition reviews lake habitat plan

The County Coalition for responsible management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and Lake Worth Lagoon reviewed a habitat enhancement plan for Lake Okeechobee, welcomed a new commander for the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and reviewed rainfall predictions for Lake Okeechobee when they held their quarterly meeting Friday, June 5 at the Okeechobee County Court House.

A habitat enhancement plan put together several years ago appears to be making progress in helping the health of Lake Okeechobee. The report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission showed work has included 37,000 acres on the northwest end of the lake since 2001. This work included sediment removal and the Pearce Canal berm removal.

Herbicide treatments included 950 acres of typhus, 77 acres of torpedo grass, and 490 acres of pragmites since 2011. The total acreage in 2014-2015 included 2,690 acres in the northwest marsh, with 1,400 acres of torpedo grass, and 1,190 acres of cattails; 2,690 acres were treated at Moonshine Bay. The FFWCC also planted new vegetation with 2,300 trees which included bald cypress, sweet bay magnolias, cabbage palms, potash and red maple.

The tin house cove project included 270 trees that include satin leaf, pigeon plum and spice wood. The Tin House Cove edge project included 2,080 trees which included bald cypress, button bush, and giant bullish. Okeechobee County Commissioner Frank Irby said various interest groups aren’t listening to the experts on water. Commissioner Irby said there is a need to help the public understand the problems with the lake. Commissioner Irby went on to state and land owners store water and have for over 40 years. He also praised best management practices implemented for farmers and ranchers that reduce nutrients. He questioned whether the state’s purchase of US Sugar land would work.

“Experts say land south of the lake is not feasible. I’m fairly certain SFWMD would prefer to resolve this. They are not working against us. The environmental groups don’t understand the costs of some of these properties,” he added.

Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard reported that the lake and estuaries are in better shape now that the Corps has stopped releases from Lake Okeechobee. She noted Martin County recently purchased 1,800 acres known as the Harmony Ranch that is an important piece for public conservation. She also expressed excitement about a water farming operation in Indiantown at Caulkins grove. This covers 3,300 acres.

“The re-emergence of flora and fauna and fish has been great,” she said. “This was an old citrus grove damaged by canker. This operation could treat 80,000 acre feet of water per year.” At Commissioner Heard’s request, the coalition approved a resolution to support the Governor’s proposed budget that calls for more use of Amendment I dollars to purchase property for conservation. Lee County Commissioner Fred Mann said he finds amusing the Fort Myers Television station coverage of algae found in the Caloosahatchee River. “This is the annual report that the sky is falling,” he said. “If they can’t find the algae, they’ll use footage from 20 years ago.”

Commissioner Mann said water and economics go together in Lee County. He said if they don’t have healthy water, tourism and growth collapses. He said water quality is the most important issue they face. He expressed frustration that nothing seems to change.

“These battles have been going on for 25 years,” he said. “Some environmental groups oppose each other in the battle to purchase US Sugar. I don’t feel we have made progress at all,” he added.

Commissioner Mann said they must focus on one project, get that completed, and then move onto the next.

Glades County Commissioner Paul Beck said green algae have appeared in the Caloosahatchee River since the 1950s. He said algae grow as the water temperature rises. He said the simple solution is to send water south out of Lake Okeechobee. He went on to state that he supports keeping land on the tax rolls. He said ranchers and farmers have flood insurance and the capacity to store more water. He also criticized how the state maintains conservation lands.

“Some conservation areas are so grown up a rabbit can’t go through them. Algae will be around as long as we have hot weather, low water levels and nutrients in the water,” he added. Commissioner Jack Richie of Highlands County said his county’s biggest concerns are the impacts storm water runoff has on their near 100 lakes. He said the Spring Lake Improvement District is doing their part with improvements to their waste water treatment plant.

The coalition also welcomed the new commander of the Jacksonville District for the Corps of Engineers, Lt. Colonel Jennifer Reynolds. She took over command on June 1. The coalition members invited her to a future tour of the Herbert Hoover dike. In a brief address to the coalition, Lt. Col. Reynolds stated she was excited about the opportunity and looked forward to studying the region and its water issues.

Kim Taplin, of the Programs and Project Management Division of the USACOE said the Kissimmee River Restoration is nearly complete, with just three construction contracts pending. They expect to complete the project in 2019. The project now holds 130,000 acre feet of water storage. The oxbow off the Kissimmee in Fort Basinger will be closed June 15 to July 13 for embankment repairs. It is located 1.7 miles south of US 98 and just north of S-65 D lock and spillway. Lake Okeechobee levels stood at 15.23 feet on Jan. 1, 2015. The lake had inflows of 816,000 acre feet or 25 inches of water since the beginning of the year. The outflows included 456,000 acre feet out the west side or 14 inches, 117,000 acre feet out the east side or 3.7 inches and 717,000 acre feet or 22 inches sent out south and through Nicodemus Slough. Evaporation removed 17 inches or 540,000 acre feet from the lake between January and May.

John Mitnik, SFWMD Engineering and Construction Bureau Chief, said the 2014-2015 dry season was 2.5 inches below normal, or 86 percent of average rainfall. The Kissimmee River basin received above average rainfall. The weather forecasters expect drought over the southern tip of Florida this summer. In June, above average rainfall was predicted with only a 5 percent chance of going above 15 feet in dry season. This prediction came from the National climate prediction center.

Jeff Sumner, Director of Agriculture Programs for the South Florida Water Management District gave a report on the dispersed water management program public private partnerships for water resources protection. He explained the benefits of shallow water on private land done by simple structures include increased water storage, less water to lake, reduced nutrient loads, more groundwater, habitat improvements, rapid implementation, more soil moisture in dry season, longer life for grass, and more water for livestock.

He said the Florida ranch lands environmental services project includes 92,973 acre feet of water storage. Another 102,000 acre-feet are in the process of being permitted. Examples of these projects include the West Water Hole Glades pasture which reduces nutrients in the water. It includes an inflow and outflow filter marsh that is exceptional in the reduction in nutrients. It removed 25,000 metric tons of phosphorus last year. Mr. Sumner reported that the program spends about $15-$17 million per year. The land stays on the tax roll and is dependent on state legislative funding each year. He noted they continue to look for ways to store more water in the most affordable and cost effective ways.

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