TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Diverting Lake Okeechobee freshwater south toward the Everglades is a safe and effective way to reduce discharges that Southwest Florida officials say are soiling Gulf Coast ecosystems, advocates say. But one expert argues the lake water is too dirty for the Everglades.
Gov. Rick Scott's plan would divert 400 million gallons of Lake Okeechobee freshwater from the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers that local officials in Lee County believe will ruin coastal ecosystems. The plan would have little impact on the Everglades, said Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District.
"We're seeing in water sampling being taken in the lake and the estuaries that the lake water is not much different from what's coming off the local basins," Smith said. "If it rains anywhere west of Lake Okeechobee to Cape Coral, that's the quality of water the Caloosahatchee is seeing."
Scott's plan, which he announced Thursday, still requires approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had not acted as of Friday, said Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz.
Jim Beever, a planner with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, said water in the conservation areas and Lake Okeechobee is too rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and waste. The state currently is faced with no good solutions, he said.
"That water is not Everglades ready," said Beever. "You have to consider the delicate ecosystems down there before you allow the water to come down."
The Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, an environmental group made up of counties in Southwest Florida. has not taken an official position on the issue, Beever added.
Lee County leaders praised Scott's plan Friday. Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane said his discussions with the Corps have been positive and things were moving forward.
"I haven't had anyone tell me that's it's not going to happen," said Ruane, whose city sits at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. "I can tell you that a lot of people have been communicating and working together to address this terrible situation."
Historic rainfalls over South Florida in January pushed the banks of Lake Okeechobee beyond the safe limits managed by the Corps, prompting the water release on Feb. 4. The release is pumping murky water into Lee County's coast, which local officials believe is harming the ecosystem.
In response, Scott sent a letter Thursday to the Corps requesting they divert the lake water to the Everglades. Scott's letter was followed by orders from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection, paving the way for the Corps to act.
As of Friday, the lake level remained at 16.23 feet — four feet higher than what the Corps considers safe.
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