Lake Okeechobee Flow Cutoff Looms

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jerry Phillips (850) 877-8097; Luke Eshleman (202) 265-7337

Lake Okeechobee Flow Cutoff Looms

Lee County Decries Drinking Water Woes and Caloosahatchee Salinity

WASHINGTON - Lee County is bitterly protesting a proposed cutoff of
the water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary, citing
loss of drinking water supplies, a rise in salinity and harm to its tourist
industry, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The fight pits agricultural users against
wildlife and urban demand, as South Florida's water supplies and quality
situation continue to deteriorate.

At its March 12, 2009 meeting the Governing Board for the South Florida Water
Management District (SFWMD) recommended ending any further releases from Lake
Okeechobee for the rest of the dry season through June. This recommendation
to cease the "beneficial base flow discharges" of approximately
650 cubic feet per second to the Caloosahatchee requires concurrence from the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In March 17, 2009 letters directed to the SFWMD and the Corps, Ray Judah,
Chair of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, complains that the state water
agency acted with scant public notice, using "deficient information" and
relying upon "the absolute worst case scenario" about future lake
levels. Judah says that the cutoff will reduce water supplies and deliver harmful
effects to the ecology and economy of Southwest Florida, including:

  • Potential loss of the county's ability to "withdraw and
    supply water from the Caloosahatchee River at the Olga Treatment Plant";
  • "[S]ignificant increases in salinities and a heightened risk
    of algal blooms" in the Caloosahatchee system; and
  • Economic damage from "a direct and significant impact" on
    the region's tourism industry.

The conflict raises questions about the state and federal governments' ability
to naturally store waters while protecting water quality - an increasingly
severe problem in drought-stricken South Florida.

"On one hand, we are starving the Caloosahatchee, but because of last
week's rain on the east coast, they opened the gates to make flood control
releases," stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, an attorney who
formerly worked in the state Department of Environmental Protection water program. "In
South Florida, they are now reduced to fighting over water scraps."

More fundamentally, however, the Corps, SFWMD and Lee County continue to permit
developments and drainage canals that alter the region's natural hydrology
and degrade aquatic resources.

"There is no reserve left for lean times because the system is managed
to accommodate agriculture while fueling unfettered urban sprawl. Public agencies
have not demonstrated they are capable of effectively managing the system,
much less ‘restoring' it," Phillips added. "Even though
this region is on the verge of an ecological meltdown, consumptive use permits
continue to be issued for water-intensive uses like golf courses."

Read the Lee County letters

View Lake Okeechobee recent water management history

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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