How EAA and CERP Plan Will Help to Deal with the Okeechobee Lake Crisis

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Water is the basis of human life. Considering the human body is made up of 60% water, it is extremely vital to us. Water allows us to live, clean, have fun, and survive. Water creates jobs and a life for many. If something negative happens to this water, millions will be out of luck and their life gone. This issue is important to me because here in my local waters of Florida such as Fort Myers, Port St. Lucie, Sanibel, Captiva, and many others, our water is deteriorating rapidly.

Being a kid who enjoys fishing and relaxing at the beach every week, the issue of the water directly impacts me. I don’t want to go out on the water and see dark brown water that was once blue, or not even get a single fish bite. There are already organizations trying to make a positive change in the local water conditions, such as Captains for Clean Water and Calusa Water Keepers, and I am going to get involved in these organizations to find out more about the issue and how much the say or power the fisherman actually have regarding the Okeechobee water releases. This issue is that of a local and regional issue. The water isn’t just affecting our local waters but those of the east coast and southern part of Florida too.

Lake Okeechobee water is killing off the environment of most of the southern part of Florida, and being a citizen of the state I will get involved as much as I can to help our local problem and push to help at the regional level as well. The issue at hand is the creation of man made dikes and canals controlling the flow of water throughout south Florida and the Everglades. Before the Everglades system was dammed, diked, ditched and diverted 75 years ago, Lake Okeechobee would fill up with water each May to November rainy season. The Lake then overflowed to the south with clean fresh water trickling south through the Glades to Florida Bay. This River of Grass created an estuary of staggering productivity and outstanding fisheries in the Keys and South West Florida. There was then the creation of the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. The water was diverted so the land could be dried up for the use of agriculture.

In this process Lake Okeechobee became fouled with excessive nutrients. The State of Florida was conflicted. There was no where for the water to go and they seemed to be influenced by sugar farmers and others not directly affected by the polluted water and sent the water east and west into the Caloosahatchee and Port St. Lucie Rivers slowly killing off their estuaries due to the foul water. This also led to the starvation and hyper salination of the Florida Everglades which, in turn, started killing the ecosystem. Many people agree that the solution to this problem is the clean up of the agricultural pollution in Lake Okeechobee through the development of stormwater treatment areas and sending the clean water south to the Everglades revitalizing it and Florida Bay, and spare the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee from millions of gallons of polluted Lake Okeechobee water. These water releases have hit a critical level and need to reverse. Local fisherman and organizations have brought to life the issue that has been put on the back burner for too many years. It’s a tremendous issue for Florida as the fishing industry brings in 9 billion dollars annually and employs over 125, 000 Floridians, 70% of these numbers from South Florida alone. If we look at water in a broader aspect such as dock hands, boat mechanics, and other supporting roles, the water industry brings in 15. 3 billion dollars annually and employees 183, 000 citizens.

The relases need to stop now, but the pushing force (fishermen) behind change seems to be subdued. For my political engagement activity, I wanted to see exactly how much voice and power these fishermen have and if their voices actually matter to the government. To do this I interviewed multiple, local fishing captains, a member of the SFWMD, and also attend an event hosted by a local NGO who has a voice in this issue. When it comes to it, the fishermen are the ones that see the day to day deterioration of the water systems, not government officials. All of this mismanaged water isn’t just killing the ecosystem, it’s killing the jobs that thrive off of it. The fishing industry alone in Florida produces over 9 billion dollars in revenue yearly and with these frequent water releases this number is dropping dramatically.

To get a first hand perspective on the issue I interviewed Chris Wittman, a long time fishing guide in Fort Myers with a liberal perspective on the issue. I asked Captain Wittman how much his business dropped when the water releases hit an all time high, in the 2015-16 winter, and Wittman replied that the Lake Okeechobee water release in January of 2016 caused him an 80% drop in business from people not booking charters. “The water was brown and the fish were dying. No one wants to spend thousands of dollars to fish with me for five days and catch nothing.” Wittman, who is also on the Board of Directors for Captains for Clean Water, an organization trying to spread awareness about this issue.

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I asked Captain Wittman if he could see a change in the number of fish caught when he took out clients or if it was just a physical change of the water and he stated, “Prior to water releases I would go out fishing 6-7 times a week but since the releases that has dropped to two days per week as there are no fish left.” Talking to Captain Wittman made me realize that these fisherman can’t leave their trust in the government to always protect their well being, and that they need to draw an eye to these issues. If Captain Wittman hadn’t started an organization that brings to light the water crisis in South West Florida, who knows how long it would be until the issue would be fixed. The government is just now in the planning stages to build reservoirs to reduce the amount of discharges from the Okeechobee. This “plan” known as the EAA and CERP to reduce Lake Okeechobee water release was created in 2001 and stalled until Governor Scott passed Senate Bill 10, in May of 2017, to get the projects going again. It wasn’t until the fishermen stepped in a couple years ago and heightened awareness that this began to catch attention.

The economic power of private industries and the wants of the environmentalists plays a great role in the issues regarding Lake Okeechobee. Arguments between environmentalists and these private industries have to be settled by the state government of Florida. The South Florida Water Management District, operated by the state government, is the governing body that addresses the issues. For my second interview, I spoke to Jaime Weisinger, an Executive Board Member in the SFWMD who deals with the local and regional projects to fix the water systems. He directly addresses these issues regarding Lake Okeechobee’s water and those affected by it, his views are very realist. Mr. Weisinger provided me with some background information about how the government feels about the water problems and what they’re doing about it. “The discharges will never end, the goal is to minimize them.” Mr. Weisinger told me that these discharges will always happen due to the issues man created back in the 1970s.

The goal of the SFWMD is now to fix these problems created and make it better for the future. The government has already planned out the projects, and all of them are in various stages of development right now. One of the big issues regarding the return of the normal Okeechobee water flow is buying land south of Lake Okeechobee and putting in a pump station. This land is not able to be bought by the government or taken without permission by the seller, therefore the SFWMD has other projects to help mend the environment. The most current project, named C43, is an 170, 000 acre reservoir just past Alva along the Caloosahatchee River. This reservoir, costing well over $250, 000, 000 all said and done, is a big leap for the state and its water management system. This reservoir will help minimize the discharges of Lake Okeechobee and slowly improve the environment’s health. The reservoir is projected to be done by 2022, Mr. Weisinger said. Speaking to Mr Weisinger, his views seemed to be in between a capitalist and liberal view. I felt his views were like this as the SFWMD want to help the environmentalists but also provide for the farming industry, like Lipman Farms, as it draws in a lot of profit for the state and its citizens. This is where the arguing occurs.

The environmentalists want more done to help their cause, but there’s not much more the SFWMD can do than what they’re already doing. They have their set projects and the deadlines for them, so it’s just a waiting game for the water conditions to improve. After discussing the other side of the issue with Mr. Weisinger, I would like to go back and talk to Mr. Wittman and ask him a few questions like, “What else do you want the SFWMD to do about the issue that they’re not already doing.” As well as, “Is there any way to speed up the water clean up process.” After listening to both sides of the issue it seems as when the fishermen can spread the word, or “rally in numbers” they can bring about change. On the other side though, the SFWMD is looking out for all walks of life in Florida, from farmers to fisherman and those related to them. To make the fisherman happy they would take away from the farmer’s life. The state government is looking for a healthy balance to please all the citizens of the state and looking out for their rights and listening to their voices as well.

After hearing two voices on the issue I decided I wanted to hear more from the commercial fisherman. Everyone is going to have a different stance on this issue and I want to see if this feeling of despair, anger, and sadness carried on from fisherman to fisherman. I set up an interview with Trotter Tenfelde, a former U. S. Marine, Coast Guardsman, and a licensed fishing guide in Fort Myers since 2001.

I asked Captain Trotter if he has seen a physical decline in water conditions over the years and he replied with, “Yes, I remember when you could pick shellfish right up the Caloosahatchee and eat it with no problem.” I then asked if he too, like Captain Wittman, saw a decline in business and income during the highest point of the Lake Okeechobee releases in the 2015-16 winter. Captain Trotter said, “My revenue was down 50% during the winter releases, but during the summer I leveled out as the release slowed down which had never happened to me before.” Considering 60% of Captain Trotters annual income comes in the 4 month spread of winter, he was astonished of what happened that season.

Captain Wittman and Captain Trotter had some very similar points on the issue such as the horrible red tide and algal blooms. I could tell after interviewing both commercial fishermen that they have the best eye for what’s happening day to day on the water. Without their voice and influence, local government officials would still be moving at a slow pace. It’s those men and women, the ones on the water everyday, that bring about change.

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