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County commissioners send letter of opposition to Lake Okeechobee plan

Lee County board considering legal challenge to Army Corps of Engineers

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Aug 3, 2021

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to oppose the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) and send a letter expressing its disapproval to Col. Andrew Kelly, Commander of the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ruane called the meeting with Kelly a week earlier to be “rather frustrating.”

In the letter from Ruane approved by the commissioners, the chairman stated that “the overall burden of flood control releases to the Caloosahatchee would increase.”

Ruane stated that the manual would “burden the Caloosahatchee with stressful and damaging discharges over extended periods of consecutive months causing irreparable harm to our fisheries and estuarine ecology.”

Ruane said Tuesday that “the community is very concerned.” Ruane said he has worked closely with the Army Corps of Engineers to communicate the county’s perspective. Ruane said the county made a “great presentation” at last week’s meeting with Kelly along with the county’s consultant and three mayors. The one positive Ruane sees in the plan is on low-flow issues. Ruane said the county “will receive more low-flow issues” to balance the salinity in the estuaries.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could increase flows to Lee County and the Caloosahatchee River under the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual being developed.

The trouble is on the high flows into the Caloosahatchee River.

“If it is a 10-year wet period they will result in receiving 50% more high flows than we would in 2008,” Ruane said. Ruane said “it’s a very frustrating process that is going on. I think we have done everything we possibly can do.”

Among the changes Ruane has called on the Army Corps of Engineers to implement with the plan is to more accurately report the actual contribution of fresh water to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary, “total measures should be measured at S-79,” he stated.

Ruane said discharges from Lake Okeechobee should be limited to no more than 2,100 cubic square feet per second at S-79 (W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam). In November, releases by the Army Corps of Engineers from Lake Okeechobee were averaging more than 4,500 cubic feet per second which is considered harmful to the estuary by the Calusa Waterkeeper. The Calusa Waterkeeper considers releases to reach the harmful level to the estuary when they reach 2,800 cubic square feet per second or more. The estuary was still receiving as much as 3,000 cubic square feet per second or more in December and high levels of red ride and fish kills were reported in late December in Lee County.

Ruane also called on the Army Corps of Engineers to direct more of flows south.

Ruane said Kelly has said minor changes could be made to the plan, but Ruane stated that “major tweaks” were needed. Last week, Ruane said “open heart surgery” was needed for the manual.

On Tuesday, Ruane called on the commissioners to make legal challenges an option.

Lee County District 5 Commissioner Frank Mann said he agreed with Ruane but said the county has been “ignored before” and asked “what big hammer do we got?”

Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch said a challenge under the Endangered Species Act could be made.

“The citizens of Lee County can not take this anymore,” Ruane said. He said the federal government was not acting fast enough. “We have to live with this for 10 years.”

Ruane said other government bodies may be willing to join the county in support and said he believes the county is united. “Everybody is petrified because 2018 was not that long ago,” Ruane said.

“There is a point in time where you get punched in the mouth too much and you say no more,” Ruane said. “This has got to stop.”

Ruane referred to his tenure as mayor of Sanibel where he said hundreds of thousands of pounds of dead fish were picked up due to the red tide outbreak in 2018.

“I’m tired. This is our way of saying ‘we will do what we have to do,'” Ruane said.

Mann referred to the current political moment as being akin to the movie “Network” where the character Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) calls on people to yell out their window “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Mann said the county has been getting hit with more runoff than anybody else and it has been that way “until we throw a fit.”

“We’re getting ready for the long run,” Mann said. “I’m with you.”