The outdoor industry rallies together to demand true balance in the new Lake Okeechobee management plan
If you can’t find Chris Peterson in his office at Hell’s Bay Boatworks, you might have luck tracking him down out on the water, probably with rod in hand. More likely though, he’s on the road advocating for water quality, either through one of his conservation-based board-of-director roles or through his participation in events like Skiff Challenge—a boat race around Florida to raise awareness about the state’s water-quality issues.
Most of the time, if he’s not fulfilling his duties as the owner of Hell’s Bay, he’s either spending time on or fighting to protect the resource that his business depends on—our water. It’s a dedication to protecting our natural environments that you’ll have no trouble finding at many other companies throughout the outdoor world.
The outdoor industry is truly one-of-kind. Although it’s a multi-billion-dollar business, the commitment from the industry’s brands and organizations to protect our wild places has more of a mom-and-pop, grassroots feel. Central to the success of that commitment is clean water.
That’s why dozens of outdoor brands just delivered a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers demanding that Lake Okeechobee is managed more equitably going forward. In the letter, the industry is urging the Corps to implement a new plan that increases flows south to the Everglades during the dry season (when it’s desperately needed) in order to create more capacity in the lake to hold water during the wet season and avoid toxic discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Simon Perkins, President of Orvis, recognizes the importance of his company stepping up in this moment, saying about the letter, “One of our core values at Orvis is to protect what you love. The Everglades and the Florida coastal system are on the verge of extinction. Not only do they make up one of the world’s most remarkable ecosystems, it’s also an ecosystem that sustains an $85 billion economy that is dependent upon clean water. Now is the opportunity for the outdoor community to stand together and use its voice to protect these invaluable treasures, or risk losing them forever.”
The letter comes as the Corps is finalizing the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), which will replace the lake’s current operating framework and dictate lake releases for the next decade. That’s why it’s critical that the new plan represents a more balanced approach to the system, one that reduces harmful discharges to the coastal estuaries by sending more water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades during the dry season and providing more capacity for the rainy season.
If LOSOM doesn’t achieve that balance, the status-quo lake management will continue to degrade south Florida’s estuaries and the communities that depend on them. The Everglades, a national treasure, will continue to suffer from salinity imbalances that destroy essential seagrass habitat. The east and west coasts will continue to receive damaging discharges of freshwater from the lake, often loaded with toxic blue-green algae and always laden with nutrient pollution capable of fueling harmful algal blooms.
If the new plan doesn’t provide a truly equitable distribution of water, then we will continue to see devastating impacts to our estuaries—something that Peterson is fighting to avoid. He realizes LOSOM is an opportunity to correct a great deal of those system imbalances, stressing, “Clean water is the lifeblood of Florida and the beating heart of the marine industry. For too long, the status quo has benefited few at the expense of our businesses, estuaries and communities. This is our chance to get it right. Restore the Everglades, manage Lake Okeechobee equitably, and let’s safeguard our state’s most valuable resource—clean, healthy water.”
And there’s no question that Florida’s most valuable resource is clean, healthy water. Florida’s economy runs on water, which is at the heart the state’s $85 billion tourism industry, including an $11 billion fishing industry and $23 billion recreational boating industry. Without clean water, that economy—to which south Florida’s estuaries are vital—will suffer major impacts. It’s time that the framework used to manage Lake Okeechobee recognizes that Florida’s 21st-century economy hinges on clean water.
Chuck Yates, VP of Sales for SeaDek Marine Products, sees that economic connection every day, saying, “As an international company based in Florida, we supply marine products for every aspect of life on the water—fishing, sailing, wakeboarding, pleasure cruising—you name it. Our business supports thousands of jobs that rely on the health of the Everglades and the connected estuaries. Without clean water, the $33 billion marine industry hangs in the balance.”
But it’s not just Florida’s fight—the opportunities that the sunshine state’s waters offer are treasured by people across the nation. That’s why this letter to the Corps came with support from brands headquartered all over the country, from Texas-based YETI to Daiwa in California, Flylords in Colorado, Scientific Anglers in Minnesota, and dozens more in between. The passion to protect Florida’s waters extends well beyond its physical borders.
It’s a national interest championed by brands throughout the industry. Fishing and the outdoors are more than a way of life for millions—they make up an economy worth billions. And Florida’s waters at the center of that economy, so it’s critical that we do everything to protect them.
Thankfully, the industry is doing their part to protect them. The Everglades and south Florida’s coastal estuaries are under immense stress right now. Decades of water mismanagement, altered flows, and a complete manipulation of the system have taken a toll, but a balanced LOSOM can help alleviate some of that stress with near-immediate results. If LOSOM is written in a way that restores the system closer to its natural order by maximizing flows south to the Everglades during the dry season, then we’ll find ourselves a great deal closer to preserving a national treasure for generations to come.