By: Katrina Elsken, Lake Okeechobee News
OKEECHOBEE — “We have to protect Lake Okeechobee. The water and the nutrients are coming from the north. It doesn’t make any sense to clean it going south. We have to focus on the source of the water, clean it there and store it there to reduce the flow to the lake. That is just common sense,” Dr. Brian Lapointe of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute told the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government on Jan. 9.
Dr. Lapointe urged the senators to use science, not politics, to guide decisions on water quality issues.
The research professor explained some of the misconceptions about the watershed issues.
The “send it south” slogan is a distraction, he told the senators. Dirty water is coming from north of the lake and should be cleaned before it goes into the lake, Dr. Lapointe said.
“Send it south” is promoted by some environmental groups who claim excess water from Lake Okeechobee should go south into the Everglades instead of east and west to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. He said sending water from Lake Okeechobee south into the Everglades is not possible during the wet season.
“When it’s wet north of the Everglades and there are high water levels in Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades has high water levels, too, so the whole idea of moving water south is complicated. How can you move it south when there is already too much water?” he asked.
Two years ago, they had to move water uphill into the lake from the south, he explained. In 2016, heavy rainfall south of the lake resulted in flooding in the Everglades, threatening native wildlife. Millions of gallons of clean freshwater were pumped north into Lake Okeechobee to reduce flooding in the Everglades.
Dr. Lapointe said theories that Florida Bay needs more freshwater are unproven.
“There is still no published peer-reviewed paper showing that high salinity kills those sea grasses,” he said.
“That was the perception in the 1990s, which George Barley believed, which led to the flooding of the bay and all of the damage that occurred in the Florida Keys,” he said. “There was no published science to support that. That was politics.”
Even if Florida Bay needed more freshwater, if the natural flow from the lake were restored to the south, the water wouldn’t go to Florida Bay, he said.
“You hear we should send the lake releases to Florida Bay. The reality is flow from Central Everglades does not go to Florida Bay,” Dr. Lapointe explained.
“You hear this today: ‘The Corps of Engineers drained the Everglades, and the national park is starved for water.’ You hear that a lot, but just the opposite is true. The flow of water to the park has been measured every day by United States Geological Survey since Oct. 1, 1931. The flow has increased incrementally over time,” he said.
“The environmental groups have pointed the finger at fertilizers and farmers,” Dr. Lapointe continued. However, in the Treasure Coast area, “since the year 2000, we have seen acreage of citrus go down by 70 percent.”
While the acreage in agriculture has shrunk, the human population has grown, and in a lot of the urbanized areas 50 percent of the residents use septic tanks, he continued.
“The problems in the lagoon are population growth and inadequate infrastructure,” he said.
Dr. Lapointe said the political and media attention on plans for a reservoir south of the lake is a distraction from the larger problem…