OKEECHOBEE — Myths about the South Florida watershed can hurt efforts to save the Everglades, according to Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds’ report to the combined county commissions of Okeechobee, Glades, Hendry, Martin and Palm Beach counties, May 7 at Okeechobee High School.
‘The greatest problem that I see in many of the conversations is that often they start out as a myth of competition,” explained Lt. Col. Reynolds.
“Can we have people living here and a natural landscape, side by side? We can.
“Can we have natural ecosystems and agriculture and ranching? We can. We absolutely can.
“We don’t have a problem of oysters vs bass. What’s good for oysters is the same thing that is good for bass.
“Everglades restoration is good for the snail kite and good for the sparrow.
“It’s good for the coasts and it’s good for the lake.
“It’s good for agriculture. It’s good for the environment.
“It’s good for flood protection. It’s also good for water supply.
“It’s good for development. It’s good for tourism.
“It’s good for our coasts. It’s good for our estuaries and it’s good for Lake Okeechobee.
“Only by working together are we going to continue to move toward finishing the projects that actually solve the problem.”
Another myth Lt. Col. Reynolds debunked was the idea that the lake releases in February and March were an attempt to drive the lake down to 10.5 feet by June 1.
Lt. Col. Reynolds also explained the corps’ reasoning for releasing some water to the St. Lucie Canal in February and March and allowing dry season releases to the Caloosahatchee River at higher levels than previous years.
“We never tried to bring the lake to 10.5 feet,” she said.
Lt. Col. Reynolds said the corps operates the lake on the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, with the goal of keeping the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet (above sea level). LORS 08, which was established in 2008, was based on four decades of data, she continued. The corps is currently repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike, and working on a new Lake Okeechobee System Operations Manual which will go into effect when repairs are complete.
“When the lake starts to get too high, it becomes a safety problem,” she said. “When we see lake levels start to approach 16 feet and 17 feet, we start to see active failure of the Herbert Hoover Dike. That’s why we’re making repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike to make it safe for the people who live and work around Lake Okeechobee, because we don’t ever want to see a catastrophe like we had in the 1920s when thousands of people perished because of hurricanes that went right over Lake Okeechobee, causing massive, immediate flooding,” she continued.
“So what have we been doing with the lake this year, and how is that different from the LOSOM effort?
“Six of the last seven years, Lake Okeechobee has gone over 16 feet When we did the modeling for LORS 08 to develop the schedule, that wasn’t typical. The lake doesn’t normally get that high, that frequently. We saw significant impact on the lake ecology and on the ecology of the two northern estuaries out the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River as a result to have to make a lot of releases due to the lake being so high, particularly the last three years.”
High water levels in six of the last seven years had a devastating effect on Lake Okeechobee’s submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). Lt. Col. Reynolds said prior to 2016, there was more than 40,000 acres of SAV. At the beginning of 2016, it had dropped to 33,000 acres. By the beginning of 2017, SAV was down to 20,000 acres. After Hurricane Irma, “we had only 5,000 acres of grasses left in Lake Okeechobee,” she continued.
“That’s a really significant impact on the lake, the lake ecology, the habitat for the species that live in the lake and water quality,” she said.
“Likewise, we were seeing really significant impacts to both northern estuaries. And so the corps worked with scientists from the water management district as well as many of the state and federal agencies and decided to look at what we had modeled in LORS 08 and what had happened over especially three years, but six years total, was not typical, did we have flexibility to manage the water a little differently this dry season in order to do what we could for the ecologies for both northern estuaries and the lake itself? We used some operational flexibility to make sure that we got the lake levels down to below 12 feet.
“We never tried to bring the lake to 10.5 feet, but we did want to see the lake below 12 because what our scientists were telling us was that below 12 feet is what would allow the grasses to be able to germinate, that enough sunlight would get to enough lake bottom to allow those grasses to germinate and grow during the beginning of this dry season.”
She said the corps sent pulse releases of freshwater to both estuaries prior to the oyster season, while monitoring all three ecosystems, to do what they could to rebuild some resiliency in the three ecosystems.
“We were monitoring everything we could think of,” she said, noting they also took advantage of the opportunity to burn off the dry brush along the edges of the lake after the water went down.
“So how are we doing? We started to see a lot of those grasses germinate in Lake Okeechobee. We are seeing wading birds being very successful in areas of the Kissimmee River.
“We kept salinities within their ideal ranges in both estuaries.
“But we didn’t make everybody happy, because the lake got pretty low,” Lt. Col. Reynolds explained.
“Nothing we do is going to make everybody happy, but this was a reasonable amount of water, we felt, in order to protect the health of Lake Okeechobee.
“What we were hearing from all of the experts about weather forecast was there was not a risk of drought this year because of the weather patterns they were seeing,” she said.
“Could we have gotten it wrong? Yes.
“Could we still have it wrong? Yes. Because we can’t predict exactly what Mother Nature is going to do and we all know when we try to count on it, we get it wrong every time,” Lt. Col. Reynolds said.
She said the lake hit a low at 11.17 and thanks to recent rainfall, the lake is starting to rise again.
“The most significant impact on the lake this time of year is rainfall and evaporation, and so what we are doing in terms of releases from the lake does not make a significant difference on the lake this time of year. What makes the most significant difference is what Mother Nature does,” she said.