Special to the Okeechobee News/USACOE. An alligator makes his way down Fisheating Creek to Cowbone Marsh, home to a variety of species.
Lykes Brothers acquired the land around Fisheating Creek in the early 1900s. In the 1980s, Lykes Brothers closed public access to its land along the creek and obstructed access to the creek by boats.
By 1989, Save Our Creeks challenged the Lykes Brothers authority to restrict public access. At issue was whether or not Fisheating Creek was considered a navigable waterway, in which case it was considered state property. A landmark 1998 state court decision ruled the stream navigable.
The case was appealed and in 1999, a settlement was reached. As part of the settlement, the state purchased approximately 18,000 acres along the stream, which became the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area. The state also bought a conservation easement on more than 41,000 acres of Lykes Brothers land (known as the Fisheating Creek Expanded Corridor) and agreed to maintain a navigation channel in Fisheating Creek from Lake Okeechobee to Palmdale.
This agreement calls for aquatic weed control and removal as well as removal of fallen logs and obstructions. It does not authorize dredging.
Over the years, the Fisheating Creek channel within Cowbone Marsh had filled in with vegetation. After the FWC acquired the property, they hired a contractor to spray and then cut through the vegetation with a mechanical machine known as a “cookie-cutter.”
Special to the Okeechobee News/FDEP. This photo posted online by FDEP shows a view of the path cut through overgrown vegetation on Fisheating Creek by mechanical earth-moving machinery in 2010.
According to court documents, a cookie-cutter has two cutting wheels at the front of the vessel to shred and side cast vegetation. The cutting wheels also act as propellers to propel the cookie cutter forward.
In July 2010, before the work was completed, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) Jacksonville District’s Regulatory Division issued a cease and desist order, claiming that the “cookie cutter” was not just cutting vegetation but had actually dug up part of the creek bed and had created a large channel resulting in increased water flow out of Cowbone Marsh, draining much of its 2,500 acres.
The matter was referred to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the Clean Water Act, the ACOE regulates the discharge of many wetlands such as Cowbone Marsh.
In 2011, EPA ordered interim corrective action in an attempt to repair the damage. The state put in check dams and weirs to slow the flow of water while keeping the creek open to navigation. When this was deemed ineffective, the FWC proposed to refill the cut, using clean sand as fill.
In June 2012, FWC applied for a “minor modification” to the existing permits, seeking to backfill the area where the cookie-cutter cut a channel with approximately 27,000 cubic yards of sand.
On Oct. 2, 2012, Earthjustice, representing SOC and ECSF, challenged the permit change, stating that the proposed fill in much more than was accidentally removed and would block part of the waterway completely