Lake Okeechobee in crisis

WASHINGTON — The term “Lake Okeechobee” stirs memories in anyone who’s ever made a cast with bass tackle.

Whether it’s the memory of B.A.S.S. legend Roland Martin landing a monster largemouth at Okeechobee on his television show, visions of Rick Clunn winning a B.A.S.S. event there in 1985 or chills evoked by the thought of the lunker you caught there yourself during the vacation trip of a lifetime, the lake known to many simply as “The Big O” stirs genuine emotion in all of us.

For bass anglers, it’s a holy land — and right now, it’s in crisis.

Recent floods have caused the lake to hold more water than it was ever meant to, and those high lake levels are having some horrifying effects.

Frequent algae blooms have threatened the water quality in the lake and put many of its massive fish populations in peril — including its world-famous collection of largemouth bass. The high waters are also threatening to place much of the lake’s famed shoreline vegetation under water — and if it stays there long, it will be no more.

Right now, the water spills slowly out of Okeechobee to the west into the Caloosahatchee River and to the east into the St. Lucie River. But that doesn’t solve the problem quickly enough — and it certainly doesn’t help the Florida Everglades region below Okeechobee, which desperately needs some excess flow.

To curb the problem, concerned citizens and state conservation officials are proposing the Everglades Agricultural Area — a storage reservoir to the south that would hold spillover from Okeechobee for a while until it was discharged into Everglades National Park and finally into Florida Bay and the Florida Keys.

It would help virtually everyone in Florida — and it could save one of bass fishing’s greatest treasures.

As usual, the holdup is money and the political cooperation needed to make that money a reality.

The state of Florida is already spending $200 million a year to fix the problem, but they need that figure matched each year by the federal government before they can make any real difference.

That’s where you come in. 

When you’re making your daily barrage of Facebook comments, Tweets and Instagram posts, divert a little bit of that energy to writing an email to your United States Senators and Congressman about the issue of Lake Okeechobee and the Florida Everglades.

If you’re old-fashioned, pick up the phone and make a call.

I’ve seen firsthand that they will listen.

In late April, I was invited by Vanishing Paradise to visit our nation’s capital for the America’s Everglades Summit. The first day of the Summit was amazing, with people from all walks of life — including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, representatives from fishing tackle manufacturers and boat companies and hat-wearing fishing guides who depend heavily on Florida Bay for their livelihoods — all gathering for panel discussions on the topic.

The second day of the Summit was a reminder of how America is supposed to work, with all of us going our own separate ways at the iconic Capital building to meet with representatives from the states we call home.

Since I work here at B.A.S.S. in Alabama, I met with Michael Ciamarra and Clay Armentrout of Alabama Senator Richard Shelby’s office. Then I met with Laura Sherrod of Alabama Sen. Doug Jones’ office and Mike Albares of Alabama Rep. Martha Roby’s camp.

In a suit-and-tie environment that doesn’t suit me at all, they took the time to listen to my concerns — and then seemed genuinely concerned themselves. If they were faking it, they’ve learned to do it very well.

The political environment wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I thought it’d be. 

After walking through the long corridors of the Capital building and seeing name plates on offices like the one of former presidential candidate John McCain, I ventured into offices decorated with memorabilia from my home state — including Alabama footballs — that made me feel right at home.

I urged them to vote for reservoir funding anytime they see it on the docket. Now you should fire up your laptop, iPhone or tablet and do the same. 

These are good folks who will listen to your concerns — and I really believe they will hear your message.