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State, local leaders hold summit on Lake Okeechobee in Fort Myers

Posted at 6:36 PM, Jun 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-23 06:18:04-04

Elected officials from across Florida met Wednesday on Fort Myers to work together in an effort to come up with solutions to the negative impacts from Lake Okeechobee water releases.

The murky water released by the Army Corps of Engineers due to massive winter rainfall has discolored the Caloosahatchee River and Gulf Coast waters near the estuary. Local leaders and businesses alike are concerned with the impacts to tourism and the environment.

"Unfortunately, it's pretty ugly out there now," said Dan Andrews, president of the group Captains For Clean Water. As a fishing guide, his livelihood depends on the health of Southwest Florida's waterways.

"We're seeing very low salinities in the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River," Andrews said. "We've seen increased die-off in sea grass."

"We have seen a major shift in the political winds, and a lot more effort focused on moving water south," he added.

That means a reservoir system that would require the purchase of agricultural land south of Lake Okeechobee - a project that could take decades.

"Our federal partners need to step up and make sure they pay their fair share, which they haven't yet," Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto told Fox 4 at the meeting. "But we're going to fight for that. But to have the local governments come and own this issue alongside us...it's a great thing."

Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki said that the water in her city's canals are the color of root beer. She believes connecting with leaders in other communities across the state affected by Lake O releases is the best way to make Washington pay attention to the need to fund water-diverting projects.

"The groundswell is what we're looking to do, and really work at a local level to push it up, and let our legislators know what our desires are," Sawicki said.

Andrews is hopeful that the waters in Southwest Florida will clean up in his lifetime.

"We can create a system that's going to work for everybody living in Florida, and also work for our environment, which our tourism and our fishing industry depend on," Andrews said.

Another meeting is being planned, which will likely take place in Stuart in the fall.