Truth about the lake too complicated for a slogan

Lake Okeechobee needs a better publicist.

In early December, the Weather Channel posted an online video labeled “Toxic Lake: The Untold Story of Lake Okeechobee,” putting the blame for the 2016 algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee. The reporter refers to the lake as “toxic” and “polluted” and calls the water “fertilizer-infused.” She labeled our beautiful lake as “the source of the slime.”

Local community leaders, bass fishermen and even a U.S. Congressman have called the Weather Channel out over the unfair, untrue and malicious statements in that video. The video clips shown have also been criticized as misleading.

The backlash against the slanted and simplified coverage of an incredibly complicated issue has gotten almost as much public attention as the original video.

But the Weather Channel wasn’t alone in the bashing of Lake Okeechobee. The “blame the lake” mentality is common on the coast and often reflected in the television media. Print publications on the coast are usually better at explaining some of the many factors that cause the summer’s algae blooms along the coast. But television and internet videos are all about sound bites. And, as Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner commented at the Love the Lake rally in Clewiston in November, the truth is too complicated for a sound bite. How did the lake get such a unfair, poor reputation? Google “Lake Okeechobee” and you find plenty of Big O bashing going on, often repeating the same misinformation. The South Florida Water Management District even started putting out “Myths vs. Facts” bulletins.

For example:

Myth: Lake Okeechobee is the sole contributor to the blue-green algae blooms.

Fact: The nutrients and freshwater that can fuel growth of naturally occuring blue-green algae also come from local stormwater runoff and septic tanks. Algal blooms have occurred in past years such as 2014 when there were NO lake releases.

Myth: The algae bloom seen this summer in South Florida is an unusual occurrence.

Fact: Blue green algae naturally occurs in water bodies all over the world. Large blooms have also occurred in South Florida in the past. The problems with excess phosphorus loading into Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee River basin, the aging earthen dike, and the damage caused by releasing too much freshwater into the coastal estuaries are nothing new. These issues have been studied, researched and discussed for decades. This series of articles will take a look at the history of the watershed, the environmental problems faced and the solutions proposed.

It’s the responsibility of the press to provide readers with the information they need to form their own opinions. That’s the goal of this series. We give you the facts. You form your own opinions. Everyone can do their part in getting their views about the lake into the public discussion. In face of the bad publicity about the Big O, the Okeechobee Tourism Development Council stared the #LakeOkeechobee campaign, asking everyone who boats, fishes, hikes, bikes or otherwise finds themselves in the Lake Okeechobee area to take photos and post them online with the tag #LakeOkeechobee. Post what you see — whatever you see on the lake — online. That’s one way to show the truth about Lake Okeechobee.

Reach Katrina Elsken at kelsken@newszap.com

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