NAPLES – Congressman Byron Donalds, representing Florida’s 19th Congressional District, hosted a virtual town hall meeting with Col. James Booth, commander of the Jacksonville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Sept. 21, to discuss the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).
LOSOM will replace the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) when the repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike – an earthen dike that encircles the big lake – are complete in 2022.
“This plan allows far more flexibility for the Army Corps,” Donalds explained.
LOSOM is just one factor in water management, he explained.
With the funding coming in at state and federal level, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are delivering components of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), said Booth.
• The C-44 reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) are complete and the corps will begin to fill and operate them this fall. The C-44 canal (aka St. Lucie canal) connects Lake Okeechobee with the St. Lucie River. Runoff from the local basin drains into this 23.9 mile long canal. When the lake is below 14 feet above sea level, this water may backflow into Lake Okeechobee. When the lake is above 14 feet, water from the C-44 is managed through the St. Lucie Lock and flows into the St. Lucie River. The C-44 reservoir and STA will store and clean water from the C-44 canal, reducing the nutrient load in the water that may go either into the lake or the St. Lucie River.
• The C-43 reservoir in western Hendry County, currently under construction by SFWMD, will be fully operational in 2025. This reservoir will store water in the wet season, reducing the harmful freshwater flow to the Caloosahatchee estuaries. In the dry season, this water can be fed back into the river to meet the minimum freshwater flows the river estuaries need to maintain optimal salinith levels.
• The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) STA south of the lake is under construction by SFWMD. This week the corps will award the first of several contracts to build EAA reservoir.
“We’re making progress on CERP,” said Booth. Each project that comes online will help prevent harmful freshwater releases to the coastal estuaries.
Booth said LOSOM will provide the guidance the corps will use for operation of Lake Okeechobee when the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs are complete.
“We’re writing in the language in the manual while we are doing the modeling,” said Booth. It will take about a year for reviews. LOSOM is scheduled to be ready to use in late 2022 when the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs are complete.
In response to a question about backpumping, Donalds explained, “there was a time when members of farming communities would backpump into Lake Okeechobee. That hasn’t occurred for about 20 years. Backpumping into the lake hasn’t happened for some time.”
Booth said the only time water is pumped into the lake from the south is when the cities that border the south side of the lake are at risk of flooding from direct rainfall.
In response to a question about the potential for lake releases to the Caloosahatchee to feed red tide in the Gulf, Booth said, “SFWMD has taken the lead on stormwater treatment and reducing the nutrient load that is coming into the system.” He said this includes runoff from agriculture as well as from septic tanks.
Donalds said the lake releases are just one of the sources of nutrient loading to the river.
“We do know there is some septic tank leaching that goes into the Caloosahatchee that goes into the nutrient load,” said Donalds.
Booth said this summer, the corps did not release freshwater from the lake when the red tide risk was high on the west coast. Since the rainy season started, no water from Lake Okeechobee was released to the Caloosahatchee River unless it was needed to meet the minimum target level of 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the Franklin Lock, which is more than 40 miles from the lake. For the majority of the wet season, local basin runoff was more than sufficient to meet the minimum target so no lake water was released to the river at Moore Haven.
Booth said one consideration in the LOSOM plan is to keep freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee below 2,100 cfs. He said freshwater flows above 2,100 cfs can be stressful to the Caloosahatchee estuaries because the salinity levels fall too low. Levels above 2,600 cfs are considered harmful. “We want the flows coming out of Lake Okeechobee to be in the beneficial range from about 750 cfs to below 2,100,” said Booth.
Donalds was asked about campaign contributions he received from sugar farmers. “When I was in the state legislature, I represented the City of Clewiston. I do have relationship with the farming community south of Lake Okeechobee,” said Donalds.
“When it comes to this system, you can’t just focus on one aspect of Florida. It has to be a balanced approach,” he said.
He said his concern is, “what is the corps going to do to manage the health of the lake?” He said the health of the lake is important to the whole system.
Booth said SFWMD just finished a project that has the capability of taking water out of the lake, and pumping it into a STA to be cleaned and then returning the clean water to the lake.
Donalds said projects north of the lake, such as water farming, the partial restoration of the Kissimmee River and Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells, will help reduce nutrient load in the water that flows into the lake.