PALM BEACH, Fla.—Six weeks after Tropical Storm Isaac drenched the region with record rainfall, the storm continues to set records — good and bad.
Fishermen and the stores, restaurants and hotels that cater to them on Lake Okeechobee are reporting record catches and business. Meanwhile, on the coast, environmentalists are reporting widespread destruction of oyster beds and sea grasses because of prolonged exposure to fresh water from the storm — much dumped from the lake.
“It’s just devastating,” said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart.
For decades, the group has conducted oyster research and restoration efforts, hoping to re-establish populations that have declined by more than 75 percent in the last 60 years in the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee rivers. One adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons a day of water polluted with nutrients, algae, bacteria, sediments and other toxins.
“You go out and look and you just want to cry,” Perry said.
But in Clewiston, at the south end of Lake Okeechobee, anglers and business owners are smiling.
“Isaac really kicked a field goal,” said Mary Ann Martin, owner of Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina in Clewiston.
Communities around the 730-square-mile lake were especially hard hit during the 2011 drought, when lake levels were so low that cracked lake bottom replaced water at many docks and marinas. Now it’s the opposite: the water level in the lake has risen nearly 4 feet since Isaac stalled over the region on Aug. 26-27.
“Maybe there is too much water, but I’m not complaining,” Martin said.
Balancing the chemistry and water level in Lake Okeechobee and two of the largest rivers that flow from it — the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee — has been a perennial problem since the 1890s, when humans began tinkering with the lake’s plumbing. Among the hundreds of miles of canals dug throughout the region were two that connected the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie to tide waters.