The new plan for releasing water from Lake Okeechobee will be delayed until the end of the year according to information shared March 15 at the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) Project Delivery Team (PDT) meeting.
Col. James Booth, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District (USACE), said the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was initially scheduled for March but has been pushed back due to concerns by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Booth said they expect to have a decision on LOSOM by December 2023. The additional time will be used for more study and additional engagement by state and federal agencies.
Until then, USACE will continue to manage Lake Okeechobee under the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS-08), which was implemented in 2008.
Under LORS-08, water managers try to keep Lake O within the environmental envelope of 12.5 feet at the start of the wet season to 15.5 feet at the start of the dry season. LOSOM allows both higher and lower water levels than LORS-08.
Booth said USACE will continue to use the operational flexibility within LORS to make decisions about lake releases.
Dr. Gretchen Ehlinger, of the USACE Planning Division, said “recent analysis by NMFS had led them to switch to formal consultation due to the red tide impact on sea turtles.”
She said once USACE has NMFS’s biological opinion, they can send out the final EIS plan for review.
“Nothing has changed in the LOSOM schedule,” she explained.
The plan should be posted to the USACE website by the end of April. USACE has been working to respond to the thousands of comments they received on the advanced EIS and the draft water control plan.
“Seems like it’s kind late in the game for this to come up,” said Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford, one of Okeechobee’s representatives on the PDT.
According to information shared at the March 9 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board, a marine algal bloom commonly called “red tide” is currently in Gulf of Mexico from Tampa to the Florida Keys. A “bloom” is a higher than normal concentration of microscopic alga. In the Gulf of Mexico, Karena brevis is the species that causes most red tides.
The algae are part of the natural ecosystem. Under certain conditions, the algae reproduce rapidly and produce toxins which can harm humans and marine animals.
SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Chauncey Goss said the current red tide was fed by the runoff from Hurricanes Ian and Nicole. “There’s a ton of runoff off the land after a big hurricane,” he said.
During the dry season, the Caloosahatchee River needs freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee to prevent high salinity levels. On average, lake releases contribute about a third of the annual flow to the Caloosahatchee River. The lake releases also contribute about a third of the nutrient load in the river. Under the current release schedule, USACE has set the target of 2,000 cubic feet per section (cfs), measured at the Franklin Lock, which is more than 40 miles from Moore Haven, where lake water enters the river. The flow at the Franklin Lock includes local basin runoff, so when there is rain in the local basin, less water is released from the lake. The 2,000 cfs is within the beneficial range for the Caloosahatchee estuary.
While all nutrient load flowing into the Gulf of Mexico helps feed the red tide, the lake releases are just a fraction of the flow to the Caloosahatchee River, and the Caloosahatchee River is just a fraction of the total flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
“I don’t think the 2,000 cfs from the lake is contributing to the red tide,” said Goss.
“Red tide is natural phenomena,” said Governing Board Member Ron Bergeron. “It has been going on for centuries.
“I’, not sure we can change a natural phenomena,” he said.
SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartless said red tide does occur naturally and runoff into the ocean does feed the algae close to shore.
“When we look at releases from Lake Okeechobee, that’s something we look at,” he said, adding the lake releases do not appear to be exacerbating it.