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Bush announces plan for Okeechobee cleanup

Hopes for the region's largest freshwater lake are pegged to reservoir and cleansing marshes.

Associated Press
Published October 11, 2005

LAKE OKEECHOBEE - A $200-million restoration plan for the largest freshwater lake in the Southeast will include expansion of water storage reservoirs, construction of marshes to clean polluted waters and permanent lowering of lake levels to reduce unhealthy discharges, Gov. Jeb Bush announced Monday.

"This is about responding to a challenge," Bush said, announcing the plan on Lake Okeechobee's northern shore. "This is a great opportunity to construct a consensus plan to move forward over the long haul."

Lake Okeechobee, covering 730 square miles north of the Everglades, has long suffered from phosphorus-laden runoff from farms and towns that promotes harmful plant growth. It is similar to the problem that has plagued the Everglades, itself the subject of a federal-state restoration effort intended to reduce harmful nutrients.

Last year, the lake was dealt a severe blow when four major hurricanes combined to raise lake levels from just over 12 feet to 18 feet in three months, and stir up pollutants long buried in sediment. The darkened water blocks sunlight, killing fish and plants, and a blue-green toxic algae has bloomed because of the pollution.

To prevent possible lake flooding, water managers have discharged huge amounts of polluted water, causing extreme harm downstream to the fragile St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that depend on the proper balance of salt and fresh water. Oysters, fish, birds and plants are all affected.

"Lake Okeechobee has been brought to the brink of complete environmental failure," said state Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-St. Lucie.

Bush said restoration of Lake Okeechobee is also vital for South Florida's economic health, because its health is key for the Everglades and water quality throughout the region.

"Lake Okeechobee is the heart of the South Florida ecosystem," he said. "Success is critical to our state."

Under the plan announced by Bush, the Army Corps of Engineers will revise its regulations on lake levels by December so less water is discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee. That will enable marshes in Lake Okeechobee itself to dry out during the dry season, a part of the lake's natural cycle that has been interrupted by the high water levels.

The restoration plan also envisions construction of one 4,000-acre reservoir ahead of schedule in 2009, and an additional 3,500 acres of stormwater treatment areas that would divert and clean lake discharges. This will also reduce the need to discharge water into the estuaries and reduce by about 75 tons a year the phosphorus that flows into the lake.

The plan also calls for improved fertilizer management practices and establishes new pollution reduction standards for the lake's tributaries.

Environmental groups praised the plan as long overdue.

"A lot of these concepts have been talked about before, but they've never been brought together in a single package. That's a major step forward," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

Bush said he will ask the Legislature next year for a second installment of $25-million for Lake Okeechobee. This year, the state is tapping into $25-million in growth management money and $5-million from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The House's top budget writer, Republican Rep. Joe Negron of Stuart, said he would do everything in his power to make sure the money flows into the project in future years.

[Last modified October 11, 2005, 01:57:17]

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