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Smithsonian Comes to Lake Okeechobee
The city of Okeechobee will celebrate its centennial on Jan. 21 but it got things started early with the Dec. 17 opening of an exhibit driving home the vital importance of its namesake lake.
The Smithsonian Museum Waterways Exhibit –featuring poster panels, interactive touch screens, a freshwater aquarium, and artwork by Dr. Guy Harvey–explores the inseverable connection between humankind and access to clean, fresh water. And as the liquid heart of South Florida, there’s no place better to explore that connection than Lake Okeechobee.
The Big O supplies water for millions of people and acres of agricultural lands, and provides habitat for many species of game and food fish and both resident and migratory birds. It connects the Kissimmee River ecosystem with the vast marshes and woodlands of Everglades National Park, including the estuary of Florida Bay. That’s likely why the city named for the “Big Water” is one of only 36 communities throughout the U.S.–including six in Florida– to be selected to host the Smithsonian exhibit.
Open daily to the public through Jan. 28 at the historic Okeechobee courthouse, it was coordinated through the Florida Humanities Council, Okeechobee Public Library, Okeechobee Main Street (a downtown booster group), and the Okeechobee Tourist Development Council. The Smithsonian designed and built the display, and Dr. Harvey’s works–including paintings of blue marlin, snook, redfish, largemouth bass, manatees and other aquatic creatures–decorate the walls surrounding it.
One display panel reads: “No new water is being created–we have to protect the water we have. Use it wisely. While some water challenges are seemingly insurmountable, people are great problem solvers.”
And problem solvers Floridians will have to be to ensure the right amount of fresh water flows into the Big O and out of it to the places where it’s needed most at the right quality and the right times of year– the essence of habitat restoration.
City Councilman Gary Ritter told the gathering at the exhibit’s opening that access to clean drinking water is going to become more important in the decades ahead as Florida’s resident and visiting population swells by millions.
“We’re gonna have to be smarter in the way we use and manage the water,” Ritter said. “We need to do our part to preserve what we have.”
A very special thank-you to Dr. Paul Gray of Florida Audubon for guiding GHO president Mark Ellert, GHO managing director-lodging operations Chris Pollock, City Councilman Gary Ritter and me on an exciting and informative airboat tour of the Big O just before the Smithsonian exhibit opening. It’s the best way to explore and understand one of south-central Florida’s greatest natural resources.