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Troubled waters

At the marina at Taylor Creek Lodge off Lake Okeechobee, only a few boats are parked in the shallow waters at the otherwise crowded resort.

• Times story by KRIS HUNDLEY
• Times photos by STEFANIE BOYAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001

Millions of dollars from fishing and boating used to pour into the small towns surrounding Lake Okeechobee. That flow has slowed to a trickle as the lake's level has dropped to a 12-year low, courtesy of water management officials and Mother Nature. But a fish biologist says it's good for the lake in the long run.

OKEECHOBEE -- During a shopping trip to Wal-Mart Supercenter here recently, Don Fox, state fish biologist, was accosted by a retiree who berated him about the poor fishing and low water level in Lake Okeechobee.

Fox, whose Tennessee twang revs up a notch when he talks about the lake, assured the elderly shopper that low water is good for regenerating the grasses where largemouth bass hide. In three or four years, he promised, the fishing would be phenomenal.

Little comfort to the visitor who wanted fish on his hook now. "Hell," he told Fox. "I don't even buy green bananas!"

Fox faces a tough sell as he tries to convince visitors and residents around Lake O that this year's water level, which is at a 12-year low, is good for the long-term quality of the lake and the local economy that depends on it.

Fishing and boating on Lake Okeechobee bring more than $100-million into the otherwise struggling towns surrounding the big lake. If you don't make it on tourists and big fishing tournaments from January through March, folks figure they might as well hang it up. And right now a lot of folks aren't making it.

Just ask Judy Gillis, who fishes commercially for catfish and has seen her daily catch on the lake cut in half.

Or Sally Lincoln at her marina in Indiantown where sailboats that should be cruising the Bahamas are stuck in the mud.

[Times art]
Or Jeanne Goodyear, whose business is down 20 percent at the Pier II Motel in Okeechobee as frustrated fishermen cancel their reservations or check out early.

Or George Poppa, manager of Roland Martin's Marina in Clewiston, where 127 wet slips that usually rent for $7 a night are mired in 4 feet of muck.

"It's all due to mismanagement," said Poppa, a wiry octogenarian who blames the water management people for dropping the lake too fast last spring, the weather people for badly muffing the forecast and the Army Corps of Engineers for not dredging the cross-Okeechobee waterway that usually brings 30 to 40 yachts to his dock nightly. This year, only three or four small boats tie up at Martin's each night.

"These big boats buy fuel and the people eat lunch here or in town," said Poppa, whose dock reservation book is full of cancellations. "They can easily spend $400 or $500 during their visit, so it hurts the whole economy when they don't come."

Even people who might be expected to profit from the misery, such as engine mechanic Brett Williams, aren't happy. Williams, co-owner of Jolly Roger Marina in Clewiston, said his repair business is up as fishermen pay $300 to $3,000 to fix damaged props and engine gear units. But he no longer rents boats from his marina, and his wet slips are unusable, with only 6 inches of water.

"We've been in business 16 years," Williams said. "And this one has been the worst in terms of gross sales. Our December and January were down 50 percent to 65 percent, and though February has been up to par, that means it will be way too short a season."

George Poppa, manager of Roland Martin's Marina in Clewiston, sits in a boat in one of the 127 wet slips that now are mired in muck.

Lake Okeechobee is parched because Mother Nature decided to take over what the South Florida Water Management District began.

Since 1994, the agency has held the 730-square-mile lake, which serves as a reservoir for agricultural and urban uses in South Florida, at higher-than-normal levels. The high water, held in by the 15-foot levee that surrounds the lake, piled up.

Wave action knocked down barriers of bulrushes, thin reedy plants that protected acres of eel grass and pepper grass where trophy-size fish spawned and congregated. The deep water scoured the lake bottom and pushed mounds of dead vegetation into a 7-mile-long ridge that formed a dam inside the northwest corner of the lake. Turbulent and turbid, the lake lost 50,000 acres of emergent and submerged plants in five years.

State fish biologist Don Fox strolls in an area of shallow water in Lake Okeechobee.
Grassy keys that used to support a half-dozen fishing guides disappeared, mowed down by water that stacked up as high as 18.4 feet. The fish scattered and the population dwindled.

Last year, 80 percent of the bass caught were in the mandatory release range of 13 to 18 inches, indicating that no younger bass were coming along. Black crappies, also known as speckled perch, were at their lowest levels since the 1970s when they were being commercially fished.

"That's telling everybody that three or five years down the road, there would be no fish," said Fox, who has been with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Okeechobee for 18 years. "Once the plants go, the whole food chain goes."

Local businesses noticed the decline. Frank Marsocci, who owns a Fast Break fuel and convenience store on the way to the boat ramp in Okeechobee, saw the sale of shiners, the bait of choice for bass anglers, hit a peak in 1997 then steadily decline.

Willis Watkins of Birmingham, Ala., cleans black crappie recently at Roland Martin's Marina. Watkins expects to take home less than half the fish they have caught in recent years.
"Shiner sales were down 90 percent between 1997 and last winter," said Marsocci, who once sold $5,000 worth of plastic worms to professional bass fishermen in one weekend. "I watched high water destroy the north end of the lake. Largemouth bass fishing was just about finished up here."

Last spring, Marsocci and other local business people and officials joined with Fox's agency to lobby the South Florida Water Management District to lower the lake before the summer rains began. A coalition of five counties bordering the lake began talking about filing a lawsuit to force the drawdown.

"We were losing our fish population and we were afraid we'd lose our tourism," said David Hazellief, Okeechobee county commissioner, cattle rancher and Realtor. "With the lake at about 15 feet, we supported a drawdown to the 13-foot level, thinking the rainy season would save us."

Bowing to pressure and threats of legal action, on April 25 water management officials in West Palm Beach voted to drop the lake to 13 feet. Then the longest dry spell on record set in and took the lake lower.

"The climate prediction center had predicted a 27 percent chance of drought," said Alan Steinman, a scientist with the South Florida Water Management District. "And we fell into that 27 percent, though we were kind of hoping we would fall into the 73 percent."

Today, water at the locks on Lake Okeechobee stands at 10.5, less than a foot from its all-time low of 9.8 feet in 1981. Fox, the fish biologist, hopes it goes lower.

"We need that area to go dry and bake in the sun," he said. "This is like somebody's bypass surgery after years of not taking care of themselves. It's drastic but necessary."

Fox, 45, was only slightly encouraged by signs of rebirth as he skimmed the lake's northwest quadrant on an airboat one recent afternoon. At Eagle Bay Island, sparse stands of bulrush poked through shallow water but there were no signs of the eel grass and pepper grass that once covered the lake bottom.

On nearby Little Grassy Key, once packed with 18-million bulrush stems, about 2,000 plants stand. "We were down to just 188 stems when the drawdown began," Fox said of the reed that is key fish habitat. "It's better than it was but it's far from recovery."

Fox admits he often knocks heads with the water management people, who he thinks use the lake "as a water bottle."

"Sometimes I think they should just pave it with concrete and get it over with," he said with exasperation. "The lake can't serve everyone's water needs and maintain its ecological integrity."

Nor does Fox have much empathy for fishermen, most of whom are now fishing in Okeechobee's rim canals rather than in the lake itself.

"Even though the fishing is down, it's still better than most places in the country," said Fox, who once fished for bass in the now-dried marshes behind his office.

That's little comfort to Judy Gillis, who has been pulling catfish out of Lake Okeechobee for 40 years. "We're down to under 500 pounds per day, where we were getting 1,200 to 1,300 pounds a year ago," said Gillis, who gets 35 to 40 cents a pound for her catch at commercial fish houses. "This year we might be able to survive, but I don't know about next year."

Amateur fishermen also are pretty disgusted by the lake's condition. Dennis Lord of Wellington has been coming to Clewiston to fish with two friends for 32 years. As he cleaned the day's catch of 47 crappies one recent afternoon, he said that in years past the trio easily caught its daily limit of 75 fish per day.

"If the lake is as screwed up next year, we won't be back," said Lord, who estimated the group spent about $2,000 on their weeklong trip.

Though some semi-pro bass fishing tournaments have canceled this year, the lake still has 500 tournaments on the schedule.

Among the big-money events held during January and February were Operation Bass' FLW, with its $500,000 purse, and the $185,000 Everstart tournament, both out of Clewiston. Okeechobee hosted Bassmaster Eastern Invitational, with a total purse of $232,000, in January.

The FLW and Bassmaster events each bring an estimated $500,000 into the local economy, tournament officials said. And though this year's winners caught good-size fish, Trip Weldon, an official with the group that sponsors Bassmaster, described the fishing as so-so.

"We had about 15 incidents where anglers ran aground and had to be pulled off," said Weldon, who added that low water forced most competitors to fish in the rim canals, something unheard of in years past. "More than anything, the good areas ended up very crowded. The canals were wall-to-wall boats."

Nobody wants bass fishermen to be happy more than merchant Marsocci, who said a trio of anglers on a weeklong trip easily would spend $1,000 on bait, fuel and snacks at his store. Now those anglers are gone and Marsocci has to scramble to keep sales up.

But he doesn't regret lobbying to lower the lake a year ago. And he hopes politicians and the public don't overreact to the current pinch and raise the lake too quickly, destroying any regrowth that has occurred.

"What if it doesn't rain this summer?" he asked. "People have to have the financial wherewithal to make it through tough times. In the long-run, if the lake is healthy, the rest of the economy will be healthy."

Lake Okeechobee water levels:

Feb. 26, 2001: 10.5 feet

May 21, 2000: 12.99 feet

April 25, 2000: 14.89 feet

- Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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