A recent series of hearings on how to manage Lake Okeechobee water levels felt like an argument between opponents at opposite ends of a camel.

Each claimed that it is their end that is most important.

Folks from close to the lake and from Palm Beach County insisted that low Lake levels are killing Lake O, and it is all the fault of the coastal elite who want to destroy the poor people who work for the sugar companies.

Folks from the coastal estuaries claimed that high Lake O levels were killing the lake and causing discharges to the coast full of toxic algae that was making people sick.

They are both missing the point. It’s the camel’s hump that’s most important. It is what is between the extremes that defines the problem.

When Lake O gets over 16 feet it starts drowning the submerged vegetation. We went past 16 feet in six of the past seven years, and Irma took it to 17 feet -- good-bye submerged vegetation. When the natural stuff dies it quits cleaning the water, and we lose an ally in controlling the nutrient soup that feeds the toxic algae blooms. We lost about as many acres of cleansing plants in the lake as we have built in storm water treatment areas, for a billion dollars.

When Lake O gets below 10.5 feet, the opposite thing starts happening: the marsh grasses are drying and dying. Bird, fish and alligator nesting all but stop.

A drought once every 10 years can help the lake by solidifying and oxidizing the loose bottom muck. More than that is damaging.

What happens in the middle is how you avoid those extremes.

Water users want to keep Lake O two feet higher in the dry season to provide water supply. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers want it two feet lower in the wet season to avoid a Hoover Dike break after a storm. That’s upside-down compared to natural lakes. It’s hard to maintain the lower summer levels because tropical storms can raise the lake 4 feet in a month. It’s hard to keep it full in the dry season because that’s when all the users want irrigation water.

The folks arguing against low Lake O levels believe that the extreme levels of the last two decades were caused by lowering the high levels to protect the dike. That doesn’t square with the fact that one of the worst drawdowns happened in 2001, when the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) put new pumps at the south end of the lake. It got so dry that the lake no longer flowed to the sugar fields. So they did something new and put in pumps to keep doling out water, even when it caused serious damage to the lake itself and broke the 85-year-old low water record by almost a foot.

That happened years before the new schedule to protect the dike was adopted. They put in pumps again in 2007, before the lower schedule was adopted, and broke the low water record yet again.

That leaves us between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

Higher levels which would store more water and avoid extreme drawdowns will hurt the Lake, and encourage algae blooms and result in more discharges to the estuaries.

Repeated drawdowns below 10.5 feet will hurt the lake and encourage algae blooms.

The single biggest obstacle to managing a healthy Lake O is the fact that water managers have promised users more water from the lake than they can provide. They kept giving out consumptive use permits even though they weren’t supposed to if it harmed the lake. Now, the only way to honor their promise is to harm the lake.

Sugar growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) are not the only users of Lake O water, but they are far and away the largest user. What’s more, agricultural permits allow more irrigation water to be withdrawn in a drought, not less.

It gets further complicated by the fact that you can’t send excess water south when it rains a lot because you have to clean it first. When it rains a lot all the storm water treatment areas are full of water from sugar fields.

In a wet year, sugar needs less water and the lake gets higher still.

In a dry year, sugar needs more water. A dry Lake O gets drier still and there is no water to send south where it is desperately needed for Miami-Dade County’s water supply, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

In a nutshell, the farmers in the EAA expect us to keep them dry when everything is too wet, and keep them wet when everything is too dry. That’s great for them but the only way to do it is wreck the lake, the estuaries, the Everglades, and everyone in South Florida except a few farmers.

The system was designed initially to benefit the biggest water users immediately south of the Lake.

Until we gave away more water supply than we had, it could work reasonably well.

Now that we know the consequences of giving away what we don’t have, we need to adjust water allocations. That doesn’t mean doing away with sugar or destroying the poor people that work for the sugar companies.

It does mean facing the reality of how much water can be made available and asking them to share the adversity with all the rest of us.

If we don’t we will destroy the resource that all of us depend on.


Editor's note: Hurchalla, an environmentalist, is a former Martin County commissioner.