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Ruane blasts Lake Okeechobee plan

Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman vows to fight Army Corps of Engineers over releases

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Jul 27, 2021

Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ruane is considering legal challenges to the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual being developed by the Army Corps of Engineers due to the potential for increased harmful flows into the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ruane sat across from Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville district of the Army Corps Of Engineers Monday in the Lee County Administration Building conference room in Fort Myers and denounced the plan Kelly brought forward to manage Lake Okeechobee releases.

Joined at the meeting by political leaders from Fort Myers Beach, Cape Coral and Sanibel, Ruane vowed to fight the proposed manual by the Army Corps of Engineers as presently constituted. The manual sets the guidance on how Lake Okeechobee is managed.

The releases planned for Lee County into the Calooshatchee River could create a situation even worse than what Lee County experienced in 2018 if there was to be a season of heavy rain, Ruane stated.

“We need open heart surgery,” said Ruane after the meeting in describing how much work was needed to remedy the plan to one that would be acceptable for Lee County.

Lee County Government consultant Dan DeLisi described the manual as a “train wreck” and said he was “dismayed” with the proposals by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Colonel Andrew Kelly, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville district took a lot of criticism Monday in Fort Myers for the Lake Okeechobee manual plan which county leaders are concerned could lead to more harmful releases in the future. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

The bulk of the problem lies in a “huge inequity of flows and releases” which will direct less flows to eastern Florida and more to Lee County’s waters, DeLisi said.

“We are asking for balance,” DeLisi. He said the changes were “not a fair distribution.”

Ruane expressed alarm at how quickly the manual is being pushed forward and vowed to fight it.

“It seems like it is being rammed down our throat,” Ruane said. “I can assure you that if that is the case, we can’t have this. I will do whatever I have to in my own power to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Kelly said there was still some “flexibility” and more decisions and changes could be made on the direction of the plan over the next month. After that, models of the newly planned flows and releases will be distributed in September. The initial set of guidance will be in September and October, he said. Between October and February, there will be further public input. The final approval of the plan is not expected until November, 2022 after federal agencies review it.

Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy spoke about the devastation the town experienced from the 2018 red tide event, during a meeting with Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Ruane explained that the county couldn’t afford to undergo the devastating economic impacts that he said “crushed” the area in 2018 during the red tide outbreak.

Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy described how badly Fort Myers Beach was hurt by the 2018 red tide event, and how it laid waste to marine life and “shut down” tourism.

Cape Coral Mayor John Gunter asked Kelly, “Is this the best we can do? Because I don’t think it is. And if it’s not, we have to take the time, take a step back and make sure we get this right the first time.”

Jason Engle, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said “there’s not a lot of win-wins left.”

Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith said she was cautiously optimistic, but that the water releases had to be equally distributed. “I truly believe that we have been overlooked and underprotected for a really long time.” Smith said she believes that the plan is a starting point. “I know that all of us our are tied to the economy of our water quality,” Smith said.

Kelly said after the meeting he was “not terribly surprised” by the reaction at Monday’s meeting.

“We’ve been getting some letters” since the manual was first released last week, Kelly said. “We completely understand where the Caloosahatchee stakeholders are,” he said.