Saturday, June 04, 2005

ENV: Recipe for disaster . . .

First, you mess around with mother nature. Second, you shape the environment to meet the needs of greed. Third, you stand back and admire your technological expertise. Then, you die.


From The New York Times

After Hurricanes, an Unclear Future for 'Lake O'
By ABBY GOODNOUGH, June 5, 2005


OKEECHOBEE, Fla., June 2 - As if Lake Okeechobee had not suffered enough indignities over time, last year's hurricanes brought another whopper.

The storms churned up oozy, polluted muck that had settled on the big lake's bottom over decades, making it a soupy mess and crippling its ecosystem. The water is so muddy and so high from spring rains that sunlight cannot penetrate. Much of the lake's plant life has died, leaving its prized game fish without food or spawning grounds. Insects, birds and frogs are hurting, too.

Scientists are fretting, as are the owners of places like Gail's Bait Pail, Kib's Fish Camp and other spots along what locals call Lake O, Florida's largest and perhaps most mysterious body of water.

The speckled perch population has plummeted, and the lake's largemouth bass, which draw tournament fishermen from around the nation, are also in danger.

"If we don't get light back to the plants on the bottom she'll be a giant muck hole," said Susan Baker, campground manager for Okeechobee County, as rain pounded the empty tackle shop at Okee-Tantie Recreation Area here on Thursday. "She could be dead this time next year."

Predictions of Lake Okeechobee's demise are nothing new - at least since swampy, subtropical South Florida became a crowded human habitat. The lake, one of the nation's largest, once spilled south in lazy sheets, feeding the marshes and sawgrass prairies of the Everglades. But after it overflowed and killed thousands of people during hurricanes in the 1920's, and after disastrous flooding in the 1940's, a 35-foot dike was built around the lake's 730 square miles. Its troubles began then.

Government engineers now control the lake tightly, often keeping it high as a backup water supply and sometimes, as they did after the hurricanes raised the lake nearly six feet, pumping excess into canals and the sea. This guarantees a reserve of water for farming and drinking, but the unpredictable weather and the competing interests that water managers juggle make it highly imperfect. The phosphorus-laden muck - mostly runoff from farms around Lake O - worsens problems both natural and manmade.

"The hurricanes were an act of God," said Paul Gray, a biologist for Audubon of Florida, "but the gunk they stirred up in the lake is the result of our own mismanagement for the last 50 years."

The current crisis is so bad that the state may sharply lower the lake next spring, creating drought conditions that would allow light to reach the bottom and help vegetation return. But that plan creates a whole new controversy. Pumping out that much water could harm the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, which flow east and west from the lake and carry its overflow to sea. It would also leave farms and utilities without much of their backup water supply, a problem if rainfall is scarce.

As Mr. Gray told state water managers during a strategy session this week, "You guys don't have any options that aren't going to cause pain and harm" - a common refrain when it comes to Lake O.

Some who live and work on the lake want the South Florida Water Management District to lower it now, as the region's rainy season begins, instead of waiting until the typically drier springtime.

Lake O already stands at 14.2 feet, compared with 12.8 feet last year this time. But draining the lake's reserves now would be a risk for the agency, which would suffer the wrath of sugar cane farmers, cattle ranchers and others if the summer turned out to be dry.

"There is a lack of will on behalf of these agencies to enforce what is just and right," said Gail Powers, owner of Gail's Bait Pail, on the lake's northern shore. "But they have treated it as a reservoir for years instead of a one-of-a-kind ecosystem."

Ms. Powers knows the charms and secrets of the lake, but many Floridians do not. It lies in one of the state's most desolate regions, amid sugar cane and vegetable fields, cow pastures and lonely towns like Okeechobee, population 5,300, and Moore Haven, population 1,734.

The towering dike makes it nearly impossible even to glimpse Lake O, the second largest natural lake fully within the lower 48 states, without a climb. There are no lakeside cottages or beaches, and canoes and rowboats stay away because sudden, violent storms can capsize them.

The $8 billion plan for restoring the Everglades would build water storage and treatment areas north of Lake O, making it cleaner and easing its burden over several decades. Meanwhile, the turbid water could clear up over the summer but longer-term problems, like the dearth of aquatic plants, are likely to persist. Ms. Powers said she had already lost customers who fished unsuccessfully for shellcracker, a kind of sunfish, this spring.

"This time of year they should be catching them like crazy," she said. "But they're cutting their trips short."

Ms. Baker, the Okeechobee County campground manager, said she had noticed something even stranger: an absence of chizzywinks, tiny bugs that swarm around the edges of the lake. She called the lake "the big girl," describing how she had swum, fished, water-skied and hunted ducks on it all her life.

A few miles north, in her shop stocked with worms, flies and bottles of something called fish attractant, Ms. Powers took out a map to show that the lake was shaped a little like a human heart.

"It's a living, breathing organism," she said, "but it's sure not treated that way."

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