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Guest Commentary: It’s long past time to get water right

February 6, 2020
By Ray Judah , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

For decades, the Sugar Industry has convinced state and federal regulatory agencies to retain high water levels in Lake Okeechobee prior to the summer wet season to ensure sufficient water supply to irrigate sugar cane fields as insurance against possible drought conditions. Coastal communities on the west and east coast of south Florida have voiced concern that minimum flows should be released from Lake Okeechobee prior to the summer rains to protect downstream estuaries from experiencing damaging excessive saline conditions and to minimize excessive discharge of polluted water during the rainy season.

Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) attempted to provide a balanced water management approach by authorizing pulse releases of water from Lake Okeechobee prior to the wet season. Such action lowered the water levels in Lake Okeechobee when the risk of toxic algae was low providing greater protection to coastal estuaries from excessive release of polluted water later in the summer.

The USACOE strategy worked and our coastal estuaries fared better than in previous years when the USACOE had no choice but to dump excessive volumes of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee to protect the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. Unfortunately, with a recent change in command, the USACOE has announced that its 2020 water management strategy would revert back to favoring water supply for the Sugar Industry over critical environmental releases.

On Jan. 14, 2020 the City of Stuart voted to move forward with drafting a complaint to sue the USACOE over its announced 2020 Lake Okeechobee management strategy. To date, Lee County Government and municipalities that have suffered severe economic and environmental consequences from harmful algae blooms have remained silent. Furthermore, City of Sanibel Mayor and President of Florida League of Cities Kevin Ruane is in a unique position to coordinate with coastal cities, including the City of Stuart, to mobilize efforts to prevent the Sugar Industry from undermining responsible management of the Lake Okeechobee watershed.

Local west coast communities and grassroots organizations, including Captains for Clean Water, need to coordinate with coastal communities on the east coast and around Florida Bay and Florida Keys to help guide the USACOE in getting the water right.

- Ray Judah is a former Lee County Commissioner



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