Lee County legislators demand feds to honor ‘Lake O’ repair promises

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FORT MYERS, Fla. – Pressure is mounting on federal officials to address the water releases at Lake Okeechobee, with Lee County’s legislative delegation now joining the growing number of public officials calling on the federal government to take action.

The delegation on Friday demanded the federal government to honor a pledge to repair the lake’s Herbert Hoover Dike. Billions of gallons of murky, brown water is being released from the lake daily to keep the dike from being further damaged or collapsing.

Recent rainfall has resulted in record water levels at the lake, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release maximum levels of water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. The brown water has made for an eyesore on Gulf beaches, which local officials say has negatively impacted the area’s economy and ecology.

“El Niño is showing how vulnerable our precious estuary is to heavy rains,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican. “It’s time the federal government followed Florida’s leadership and did its part to finish the projects they committed to and create the storage and systems we need to stop these harmful discharges.”

The dike’s needed repairs, according to news reports, include:

  • Building another 6.5 miles of wall through the southern portion, which could take five years and cost about $75 million. Construction wouldn’t start until 2017.
  • Spending $10 million to close gaps in the wall, which wouldn’t start until at least 2017.
  • Replacing the dike’s 32 culverts, which could take until 2021.

Since 2007, the Corps of Engineers has spent $500 million on repairs to the dike.

A study to gauge the progress of those repairs, and to lay out plans to finish them, is expected to be completed this year.

“We are working on numerous projects at the state level to provide additional storage that will eventually alleviate the need for some of these releases, but the ultimate solution remains with the federal government’s long standing commitment to repair the dike,” said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, a Republican who represents Lee County’s coastal areas.

The calls to address the water releases at ‘Lake O’ have been many this week:

  • The mayors of Lee County’s six municipalities on Tuesday requested the Corps of Engineers to be more open in why and when they decide to release water from the lake, for state legislators to support the “Legacy Florida” bill and for the community to fully support an effort where costs are expected to run into the billions.
  • In response to the meeting, four current mayors and one former mayor of cities south of Lake Okeechobee wrote a letter calling out the Lee County mayors for not including them, clearing up claims about the water releases and to stop “pitting wealthy coastal tourism against small farming towns.” Both sides have since promised to work closer together.
  • On Thursday, the Corps of Engineers granted a request by Gov. Rick Scott, who requested them to take “immediate action,” to raise the water levels of the L-29 canal to 8.5 feet so that “substantial volumes” of water can be moved from Water Conservation Area 3 through the Shark River Slough. If the plan works, it could be applied to help reduce water levels at Lake Okeechobee, the agency said.

The delegation highlighted their support for the “Legacy Florida” bill, which would direct funds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to pay for Everglades projects that would help reduce water discharges from Lake Okeechobee. Another bill, which has the group’s support, would modernize and restructure the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Act to help restore the lake, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, and their estuaries. Both bills are currently moving through the House.

“Both of these bills are essential pieces of the puzzle to provide both short-term and long-term solutions to this problem,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican who represents Lehigh Acres. “They are a clear demonstration of Florida’s continued commitment to Everglades restoration and the protection of our estuaries. Now it is time for our partners at the federal level to step up and honor their commitments to the Herbert Hoover Dike.”

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