LAKE PLACID - Bob Weber lives on Washington Boulevard, a few blocks from Lake Istokpoga's southwest shores. His house wasn't under water Tuesday night, but it could be if the rain continues.
"I have to put my garbage on my car and drive it out," he told county commissioners at their meeting. "I can't cut the grass, and I got ducks in the back yard. The water is slimy green looking and nasty. It's really a health hazard."
By a 4-1 vote, the Highlands County commissioners ordered Road and Bridge Superintendent Kyle Green to excavate and replace older, smaller culverts, mound swales and dig catch basins. At the same time, if both South and Southwest Florida Water Management Districts agree, two pumps will be moved into the area.
However, said SFWMD's Gary Ritter, a solution won't come quickly. The water quality will have to be assessed because pollution will eventually wind up in Istokpoga. "These are all long-range projects. To be able to expedite something? It's going to be reviewed. It's going to be at least 30 days."
Green and County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete hope the county can drain some of the 32 inches of rain since June 1 - according to a SFWMD rain gauge - that has flooded some Highlands Park Estates homes.
Monte Delaney isn't convinced. "I'm still not comfortable with not cutting the ditches. Their plans are bigger than what we asked for."
Delaney owns land, including a pond, at a lower elevation, and he told commissioners he's spent $2,000 a month of his own money pumping 1.5 million gallons a day of stormwater that is keeping some of his neighbors above the water line.
"All we ever asked for was to clean the ditches," Delaney said. "They haven't been maintained for 40 years."
Cutting a ditch would start water flowing, Delaney said. "We don't have to spend a lot of money here to get some results... This could be done tomorrow. It's probably a day-and-a half of work."
"I don't want to damage any houses," Commissioner Greg Harris cautioned.
Delaney "has saved his neighbors," Commission Chair Jack Richie said. "But we have to be careful about not flooding people downstream."
"If the board authorizes, there could be pumps strategically placed that would alleviate the problem somewhat," Gavarrete said.
"The houses that have been flooded, are they going to be fit to occupy?" Commissioner Jim Brooks asked. "I'd rather help these people move and relocate. When we open the door, where does it stop? My heart goes out to them, but..."
"What I would like to see is to get them some relief," Richie said. "You could swim across Lilac Street."
"There are real people out there," one woman cried at the podium, "so please don't forget us."
"I have to worry every time it rains," said a man who lives at Lilac and Washington. "It's contaminated water all over."
"We don't have two years," Delaney responded to Ritter's earlier statement. "We don't have two weeks. You're making it too complicated, guys. The ditches are there. There is a culvert under Washington. It goes north and south and east and west. We need some help, or you're going to lose some houses. If you have a storm of any size, you are going to lose a lot of houses. Cut the ditch and get the water out now, or you'll have more homes under water. Some are very close now."
Brooks, who reluctantly voted for Commissioner Don Elwell's motion, and Ron Handley, who voted against it, were not convinced that any short-term solution could work.
"We have to step up to the plate and find some way to resolve this," Richie insisted. "We need a vote. Do I have a motion?"
"A little more discussion," Brooks said, and the commissioners talked for another one-and-a-half hours.
"This is a groundwater issue," Gavarrete said. "The water is seeping. It will be dry one day, but it will be a mixture of things that does it."
"If the board decides, it comes with a cost," County Administrator June Fisher explained. "We also need the funding within the motion. None of us have budgeted."
County Attorney Ross Macbeth explained that the Highlands Park Estates Special Benefits District has $240,000 in its account, which the commissioners control as the directors of all county special benefits districts. But, he added, if the county creates swales or ditches or replaces culverts, they must always be maintained by the county.
"I would be comfortable with the maintenance of the culverts, but I don't think I want to go any further than that." Brooks rejected other plans suggested by Gavarrete, Green, the audience and other commissioners.
Finally, Elwell suggested he would be most comfortable with Option 1, which Gavarrete presented on drainage maps.
"Isn't that going to put more water on you?" Brooks asked Delaney.
"I'll take a lick," Delaney answered, if it will help his neighbors. "I'll be all right. My house isn't on this piece of property."
The commissioners approved Option 1, but Gavarrete and Green were directed to return to the board next week with an assessment of how well their solution worked. Then the commissioners will decide whether to spend more money.