Florida Governor Announces Lake Okeechobee Cleanup

Published December 1, 2005

For more than 20 years, policy analysts, scientists, and politicians from across the political spectrum have been calling for restoration of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. Gov. Jeb Bush (R) appears poised to make the vision a reality.

On October 10, Bush outlined a $200 million restoration plan for the largest freshwater lake in the southeast United States. The plan calls for expansion of water storage reservoirs, construction of buffer marshes, a permanent lowering of lake levels, and new limits on fertilizer runoff.

Critical to Ecosystem

“Lake Okeechobee is the gateway to America’s Everglades. Restoring this dynamic system is critical to the long-term economic and environmental health of South Florida,” said Bush in an October 10 news release. “This comprehensive, common-sense plan will reduce pollution and better manage the flow of water while meeting our flood control and water supply responsibilities.”

“Lake Okeechobee has been brought to the brink of complete environmental failure,” state Sen. Ken Pruitt (R-St. Lucie) told the St. Petersburg Times for an October 11 article. “Lake Okeechobee is the heart of the South Florida ecosystem. Success is critical to our state.”

Senate President Tom Lee (R-Brandon) predicted both parties will unite behind the governor’s proposal.

“I think it’s a good proposal,” Lee told the News-Press. “We’ve agreed going in that Lake Okeechobee needs to be restored. It’s a precious natural resource in Florida and needs to be protected.”

“It was encouraging to hear Governor Jeb Bush describe a ‘bold and aggressive’ plan to clean up Lake Okeechobee and stop polluting the rivers and canals connected to it,” editorialized the October 12 Miami Herald. “Floridians have been hearing such promises for decades, but to little effect. This time things could turn out differently.”

Activist Groups Applaud

Environmental activist groups joined in praise of the Bush proposal.

“A lot of these concepts have been talked about before, but they’ve never been brought together in a single package,” Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida, told the St. Petersburg Times. “That’s a major step forward.”

“If you take a list of things that have needed to be done for a long time and haven’t been done, the governor’s got a good list,” added Kevin Henderson, executive director of the St. Lucie River Initiative, in the October 11 Greenwire.

Drew Martin, conservation chair for the Loxahachee Group of the Florida Sierra Club, emphasized Bush’s plan must be backed up with the regulatory muscle to be effective after he leaves office.

“I hope he’s sincere, and that this isn’t a last-minute stunt so that he can claim a big victory as he leaves office,” said Martin. “He needs to use his political muscle to make sure that the sugar industry and agricultural interests don’t continue to pollute the lake. There needs to be a strong regulatory backbone behind this proposal.”

Special Interest Delays

Referring to the lack of progress in cleaning up Lake Okeechobee prior to Jeb Bush’s governorship, Martin asserted, “the development interests and the agricultural interests have prevented such a plan in the past, prior to the Bush plan. I hope Bush is sincere and willing to stand up to these vested interests if necessary, and will walk the walk after talking the talk.

“The lake level has been kept far too high, and it needs to come down in a manner that does not destroy surrounding estuaries,” Martin explained. “Merely dumping polluted waters out of the lake into the surrounding estuaries will be environmentally destructive. We need to restore the natural flow of the water in the region–that is the most important thing.”

“Although the projects require sacrifices all around, the long-term payoff of reversing the downward spiral of Lake Okeechobee because of hurricanes, pollution, and heavy rains will be worth it,” noted the Miami Herald editorial. “The lake nourishes the Everglades and farmers, is a drinking-water reservoir for South Florida communities, acts as a flood-control basin during storms, and is an engine that pumps tourism dollars into the state.”

Everglades Provides Model

Bush’s Okeechobee plan continues the striking success he has had in restoring South Florida ecosystems. In January 2002 the governor signed a landmark agreement with the federal government to restore the Florida Everglades to health after a half-century of mismanagement and neglect.

By rolling back groundwater pollution and halting drainage projects that had been creating ecological stress since the 1950s, Bush’s Everglades plan has been hailed as innovative and effective.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

More information on Gov. Jeb Bush’s Lake Okeechobee and Estuary Recovery plan is available online at http://www.sfwmd.gov/site/index.php?id=727.