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NEW $1-BILLION PLAN TARGETS POISONOUS OVERFLOW // The ooze of Okeechobee

One day last summer, 17-year-old Grayson Kyte waded into a lagoon to fish for mullet. The next day, he said, "my whole right leg swelled to twice its size."

Doctors told the Jensen Beach teen he had a staph infection, probably from an algae bloom caused by pollution in the St. Lucie River.

A similar algae bloom erupted in the Caloosahatchee River on the gulf coast. It, too, was blamed on pollution, which last month spread into the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

"It's an ecological disaster for both estuaries," said Kevin Henderson of the St. Lucie River Initiative.

The culprits: the state and federal officials in charge of managing Lake Okeechobee.

When heavy rains push the water level in Lake Okeechobee too high, state and federal officials dump millions of gallons of lake water into the rivers.

But that water is full of pollutants, especially nutrients that can fuel algae blooms. The lake is 730 square miles in size but only 9 feet deep, and some of the bottom has 3 feet of nutrient-packed ooze.

The five hurricanes that swept through South Florida during the past two years stirred up the polluted ooze, creating what one federal official described as "a chocolate mess."

State and federal officials knew when they dumped that chocolate mess into the two rivers, there would be dire consequences, said Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency in charge of the lake.

"We don't like to make those discharges, but they're required," Wehle said. "When we get these big inflows, that's where the water's got to go."

Holding the water back could breach the lake earthen dike, inundating sugar cane fields to the south and flooding towns like Belle Glade and Pahokee.

Pollution from Lake Okeechobee has plagued the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie for decades. It was one justification for a $10.8-billion Everglades rescue plan.

Yet state and federal officials acknowledge that if every part of that restoration plan were built tomorrow, they would still have to dump polluted lake water into the two rivers.

Now state and federal officials have a new plan to fix Lake Okeechobee. The cost: more than $1-billion. And it still might not work.

"Nothing's going to fix it," said Mike Collins, a South Florida water district board member. "I think we're creating the delusion that there's a perfect operating system out there. But as long as flood protection is necessary in the state of Florida, there's going to be impacts to those estuaries."

Until the 1920s, Lake Okeechobee overflowed regularly. Rain south of Orlando would swell the twisting Kissimmee River, which fed the lake. When the lake overflowed, it would send water rolling into the Everglades, forming the River of Grass.

But ranchers persuaded the Corps of Engineers to straighten the Kissimmee so they could have bigger, drier pastures.

That sent more polluted water shooting into the lake. (The corps is restoring the river bends but has miles to go.)

To attract settlers to the lake, the state also built a pair of canals that turned the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee into drains for the lake's bathtub.

After a 1928 hurricane caused the lake to overflow, killing thousands, President Herbert Hoover ordered a dike built to ensure it never happened again - thus cutting off water for the Everglades.

Two years later, the Martin County Commission lodged its first objection to the dumping of lake water into the St. Lucie. It did no good.

Year after year, the straightened Kissimmee kept pouring more pollution into the lake. By the 1980s, large algae blooms covered nearly half the lake.

To help sugar growers avoid flooding of their fields, the state allowed them to backpump even more polluted water off their fields and into the lake - even though small towns ringing the lake draw their drinking supplies from the same source.

In the '80s, a law was passed limiting how much phosphorous could flow into the lake. Every year since 1991, the flow has exceeded the limit by 100 tons.

Lake Okeechobee once enjoyed a reputation as a world-class fishing spot for bass and crappie, drawing anglers from all over. Now state wildlife officials say the fish population has hit a record low because the pollution has wiped out the submerged vegetation.

Glades County Commissioner Alvin Ward used to boast that Lake Okeechobee was too big to harm. Not anymore: "We have killed Lake Okeechobee."

Throughout 1997, heavy rain fell across the Kissimmee River basin, pushing the lake higher and higher.

So in early 1998, the water district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manage the lake together, flushed huge amounts of lake water out through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie.

Within days, mullet were swimming in the St. Lucie with half their flesh eaten away.

A decadelong study by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that when the lake discharges occur, the fish in the St. Lucie tend to suffer from skin lesions and rotting fins, said Joan Browder, the scientist in charge.

"There are some we've seen where they're oozing blood and mucus and pus," Browder said.

The ecological disaster has become an economic one for both coastal communities. For instance, Lee County officials figure they lost $4-million in tourist dollars. The fishing industry lost income too.

"There's no fish, no crabs, no nothing," said Sanibel bait shop owner Ralph Woodring. "It's the worst I've ever seen. It makes me want to cry."

Over the years, state officials have announced cleanup plans, or at least cleanup studies. They even studied whether to dredge the polluted muck off the lake bottom but decided it wouldn't work.

"There have been a dozen plans across the years," said David Guest of Earthjustice, which is suing over the backpumping into the lake. "None of them were implemented because the agencies lacked the political will."

The dumping of lake water grew worse. In 2002, swimmers were told to avoid the St. Lucie, and a year later more than 1.5-million fish were killed in a canal.

Anger continued to grow. Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah said state and federal officials should let the water pour out the way it used to - into what are now sugar cane fields.

Judah's proposal upset the sugar industry and the residents of towns south of the lake. State officials said buying the sugar land would cost $4-billion.

When the water district board met in Fort Myers three weeks ago, 500 people showed up to complain.

Many waved "Stop the Muck" signs printed by the Fort Myers News-Press.

"We're dialing 9-1-1!" Sanibel Mayor Carla Brooks Johnson told the water board. "Our estuaries are on the brink of collapse right now."

But the meeting also drew busloads of Glades and Hendry County residents protesting Judah's proposal. South Bay City Manager Bobby "Tony" Smith called it "social, cultural and economic genocide."

At the meeting, U.S. Sugar senior vice president Malcolm "Bubba" Wade blamed the lack of a fix for the lake on Everglades restoration.

It distracted everyone, explained Wade, a gubernatorial appointee to the water district board. Because officials were so focused on the Everglades, he said, "Lake Okeechobee was kind of off the table. The lake got largely ignored until last year."

But when the Everglades plan was unveiled in 1999, it was supposed to fix the lake. The complex plan calls for reviving the entire River of Grass by using engineering to mimic the natural flow of water. New reservoirs and deep wells would store the billions of gallons of water now flushed out to sea.

But no one knows yet if those deep wells will work. And the wells and reservoirs still can't hold all the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee during storms, said Stuart Appelbaum, who led Everglades planning for the corps.

But at the Fort Myers meeting, Wehle of the water management district showed the crowd a new plan to fix the lake and estuaries, financed by borrowing more than $1-billion.

Besides new reservoirs and filter marshes, and reinvestigating dredging the muck, the plan also calls for a radical change in the way the state issues permits for development.

"We've begun telling developers you cannot add any additional nutrients to the system" through their drainage, Wehle said. "We're going to be more aggressive about new development."

While happy to hear state officials have a plan to fix everything, Woodring, the bait shop owner, said he's not sure that the people who messed up his estuary are qualified to fix it.

"Why do we have confidence in this board now that you'll do a better job?" he asked at the Fort Myers meeting. No one had an answer.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

THE OKEECHOBEE WATERWAY SYSTEM

Lake Okeechobee has been called "The liquid heart of Florida", but right now it's causing alot of people heartburn. Now state officials have proposed a fix costing more than $1-billion.

1. Kissimmee River: Straightened by Corps of Engineers, it funnels pollution straight into the lake. Corps is now restoring the river.

2. Lake Okeechobee: The fish population of the lake, once a major fishing destination, has crashed because of pollution. Now three feet of polluted muck covers parts of the bottom.

3. St. Lucie River: Fish swimming in St. Lucie's estuary have frequently been found with bloody lesions, fin rot and other ailments that scientists say appear to be caused by the pollution in the lake water.

4. Caloosahatchee River: Lake water dumped into the river over the past two years has been blamed for a massive algae bloom, wreaking havoc with the estuary. Neongreen bloom recently spread to J. N. " Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

5. Herbert Hoover Dike: Earthen dike holds the lake in, but when the lake level gets too high, state and federal officials say they must dump lake water out or else the dike could be breached.

6. Everglades Agricultural Area: Home to Big Sugar, which has been allowed to backpump floodwater into the lake, further polluting it. Some coastal officials say when lake levels get too high, the water should be dumped on the sugar cane fields, not into the rivers.

Source: ESRI

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