Last summer, excessive releases from Lake Okeechobee caused by an extreme rainy season, damaged our estuaries, destroyed the oyster beds and tape grasses and turned the Gulf water brown.
Our waters are returning to their former pristine condition. Those of us committed to maintaining water quality have been hard at work.
A letter advocating immediate initiatives to mitigate harmful water flows into our estuaries and the Gulf this summer is being prepared for review by many stakeholders.
At a meeting held last Wednesday afternoon, under the leadership of Dr. Dave Fleming, Chief Strategic Officer of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, eight local leaders recommended a focused action plan to present to legislators in May , followed by a "fly in" to Washington in June.
The immediate plan recommends:
- Permitting raising the water level in Lake Okeechobee by a maximum of 6 inches
- Reevaluating the risk assessments for water levels at Lake Okeechobee
- Strengthening the dam
The draft was made available on Friday, May 2; followed by a 10-day review period for stakeholders, with a target date of May 23 for signatures and mailing.
Local leaders presented short term recommendations which can also mitigate the harmful flows of excessive water to the Gulf to Secretary Vinyard, Florida Department of Environment and Florida legislators in Tallahassee. These include:
- Lands for water storage: Lykes/Bassinger Groove flood plain; Alico; Babcock ranch; Lands in the Kissimmee, Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee basins;
- Restoration Project: Lake Hicpochee
Additional efforts on near and long term solutions include: the C-43 storage project; restoring the flow of water south to the Everglades, which is currently being reviewed by the Army Corps of Engineers; using lands for storage, and increasing water purification.
Our local tourist economy depends on clean water and white sandy beaches. Last year, Lee County generated over $3 billion dollars in tourism revenue; along with Collier it was over $4 billion and employed over 85,000 people. Tourism is also important to our national economy; 22 percent, or $600,000,000 of the $3 billion dollars in Lee County came from visitors from outside the United States.
It is in the interests of State and Federal legislators to work to protect both our environment and economy. The immediate initiatives outlined in the Southwest Florida Community Foundation letter will provide mitigation this summer.
--Alan Mandel is a Councilman and former Mayor for the Town of Fort Myers Beach.