FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ New islands, rising from Lake Okeechobee like a bass fisherman’s version of Atlantis, could become a tourist-attracting, economic alternative for the Florida city of Pahokee’s life after U.S. Sugar. The state’s proposed $1.75 billion buyout of U.S. Sugar to further Everglades restoration threatens to leave Pahokee and other Glades cities without a major employer. This comes at a time when lingering low lake levels have hurt marinas and other water-dependent businesses.

That has the city teaming with Palm Beach County in a renewed push to dredge channels, clearing the way for boat traffic in low water.

The material dredged from the lake bottom would be used to create proposed “eco-islands” _ fishing, camping and bird-watching destinations that also provide a safety buffer for the lake’s aging dike.

The major hurdle is the steep price tag, as much as $55 million according to a study released in July.

The city and county are counting on the federal government to help pick up the tab. But right now, the spending priority is the decades-long, billion-dollar repair of the Herbert Hoover Dike _ named one of the six in the country most at risk of failing.

Supporters say the islands could help shield the dike, while at the same time creating an economic lifeline for communities in need of a boost.

Boat slips at Pahokee’s refurbished marina and campground often sit empty because low water levels have stopped vessels from using the lake to travel between Florida’s east and west coasts. Back-to-back years of drought, coupled with decisions to keep the lake lower due to concerns about the dike’s strength, resulted in the low water levels.

Factoring in the economic ripple effects of possibly losing U.S. Sugar’s 1,700 jobs, the situation is going to get worse for restaurants, hotels and shops, said Jim Sheehan, whose company manages Pahokee’s marina and campground.

“There is no business,” Sheehan said. “We’ve got a marina that you can’t get boats to.”

Palm Beach County paid for the $50,000 study that explores the possibility of dredging lake channels and creating the islands.

Now the county is considering spending another $150,000, during a tight budget year, for engineering and design plans needed to keep the project going. The county finalizes its budget in September.

“Create a destination for boaters, create good fishing habitat … it is just very promising,” county Parks Director Dennis Eshleman said.

The plan proposes three types of islands: one creating an extended shoreline, reachable by those without boats; several shallow water islands that cater to canoes; and a larger deep water island near the Pahokee marina with more boat moorings and campgrounds.

Aside from cost concerns, island backers have to overcome regulatory and permitting obstacles from a slew of state and federal agencies, most notably the Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps in a June 25 letter raised concerns about covering the lake bottom with man-made islands as well as using the dredged material to create those islands.

The corps also wants to finish building a reinforcing wall through the dike before allowing dredging. Rehabilitation of the southeastern side of the dike is supposed to last until 2013.

Using dredged material to build the islands could become a cost-effective way to move and contain the polluting sediment that covers much of the lake’s bottom, said Paul Gray, a scientist for Audubon of Florida.

“The mud center of the lake is just a crippling problem,” Gray said. “Part of dealing with the mud is where do we put it?”

The cost of the islands and environmental concerns raised by the corps are important issues, but so too is the need to create attractions that compensate for the loss of sugar industry jobs, Pahokee Mayor Wayne Whitaker said.

“That is a big opportunity for tourism,” Whitaker said. “We have got to provide for ourselves and provide jobs for people.”

(c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

From Staff and Wire Reports
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