Miles of muck

Lake Okeechobee hits an April low, continuing a yearlong slide that is draining business and stoking fears for the drinking water supply.

Published April 29, 2007

OKEECHOBEE - By November, he couldn't find the alligators. That was the first sign Dennis Smith, owner of Gator Hunt Airboat Rides, had that he was in trouble. "When your customers are paying $20 a head to see alligators, but they've left because the marsh has dried up, what are you going to do?" he asks.

His answer: "Take 'em to see turtles, water moccasins and sandhill cranes."

But without the marsh water to protect their nests, he kept finding the reptiles and birds dead.

Like everybody else on Lake Okeechobee, Smith knew the state had pumped 3 feet of water out of the lake last year, expecting a very wet season that turned out to be bone dry. He knew the South Florida Water Management District had started declaring water shortages in mid 2006. But it wasn't till Smith had to slide his airboat over slick mud instead of water that it really hit home.

By March the mud had turned gummy.

By April it was crust.

"Like everyone else who depends on this lake, I'm dead without water, " he said.

Lake Okeechobee has never been this low in April, says the South Florida Water Management District - not since scientists started measuring the 750 square miles of "big water" in 1932. At 9.8 feet Thursday, it was breaking drought records. And with no significant rain in the forecast and strong winds causing increased evaporation, it will continue to break records, as business after business flounders.

"It's the worst it has ever been, " said water management spokeswoman Julie Huber. "Besides business collapse around the lake, we fear we won't have water for irrigation or drinking."

At Okeechobee Fishing Headquarters, a 5, 000-square-foot fishing supply store, owners Karen and Greg MacLean usually have three assistants waiting on long lines of customers in mid April. But, because the drought forced bass and crappie in the lake into areas too shallow for boats, Karen sits alone in the store watching TV.

"I am so up on Anna Nicole, " she said.

Fishing guide Mike Shellen complains that he has to take customers fishing in rim canals because the lake is too shallow to navigate. "We catch fish, but customers don't leave raving about a beautiful day on the lake, " he said. "And it's the lake that brings them back."

Shellen drives his truck over the levy and groans at what he sees. The Okeechobee pier stretches over dry land into the water. Red and green channel markers line what looks like a fairway on a golf course. Buoys lie in mud.

Down the road, Pat's restaurant, which usually loads fisherman up with biscuits and gravy for dawn to dusk on the lake, is empty, as is the Wanta Linga Motel.

"With the lake so low, nobody wants to linger, " said motel owner Larry Crossman.

About the only visitors to this tourist town, which usually thrives in April, are a few birders who know that a drought means mudflats. And mudflats mean birds.

Audubon scientist Paul Gray, director of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Program, says that while the shallow lake is causing economic collapse for the businesses that depend on it, there is an upside: "Thousands of shorebirds and a healthier lake - at least for the short term, " he said.

Gray and other scientists say the low water level lets in sunlight so underwater plants can recover from the hurricane years.

"More plants will mean more fish, " he said. "But the lake needs to be back to 14 feet by fall or the plants will bake and many species won't regenerate."

Gray estimates that it will take 50 inches of rain between May and October to get to this level. Typical rainfall for this period is 37 inches. Hurricanes or bad storms would cause runoff and make things worse, he said.

"It's a delicate balance. The big issue is how to store clean water to balance the extremes in the lake caused by hurricanes and droughts, " he said.

Meanwhile, Jason Farrell, owner of Eagle Bay Airboat Rides, is doing his own balancing act - trying to find ways to stay financially afloat during the drought. Since he can't take customers out on airboat tours because water trails have dried up, he's using his airboat to tow boats that go aground in Lake Okeechobee.

"A few days ago, I towed a boat that went aground 3 miles out, " he said.

Farrell, whose family has lived on the lake for 50 years, has also hired "turtle catchers" so he can sell small turtles from the lake to pet stores. And he has a roadside stand with boiled peanuts and fresh orange juice.

"I'm trying to find ways to keep going while praying for rain, " he said.

His competitor, Dennis Smith, took his "Gator Hunt" sign down, towed his airboat to his yard and put a tarp over it.

"I see little tilapia cubbyholes in the mud and I know they're trapped and can't survive without the water around them, " he said. "It's the same for a lot of us on the lake."

No significant rain is predicted in Okeechobee for the next six weeks.

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.