Corps, stakeholders work on new plan for operating Lake Okeechobee

Posted 5/7/21

The Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) Project Delivery Team considered alternatives for operating Lake Okeechobee

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Corps, stakeholders work on new plan for operating Lake Okeechobee


JACKSONVILLE  -- The Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) Project Delivery Team (PDT) considered five balanced alternatives (labeled AA through EE) for operating Lake Okeechobee during a lengthy online workshop on Friday.

LOSOM is the schedule that will be used to operate releases from Lake Okeechobee when repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are complete in 2022. Currently, the corps uses the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), which was established in 2008. LORS tries to keep the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet.

Some of the options provided benefits to some parts of the system with tradeoffs in other areas. The fifth option, EE, is a plan that incorporates the concepts of memory and flexibility.

“We want to ensure that we still have a broad range of alternatives we are looking at,” explained Jessica Mallet, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) engineering lead on the project.

The next step? Balanced alternatives AA-EE will be used as a starting point for collaboration with the inter-agency modeling center, she explained.

“The concept of flexibility is included in EE, not AA through DD,” she said.

“Depending on the outcomes we see, that will inform us in our path forward for what we include in our final plan,” she said.

“The goal was to incorporate flexibility in our outcome and that is something that will be considered as we move forward,” said Mallet.

Iteration 2 modeling will be complete around the end of May or beginning of June, she said.

“We will have about a month to talk about results before choosing the preferred alternative,” said Mallet.

This is a shorter turnaround than some of the earlier phases the PDT has gone through which dealt with thousands of modeling options, she admitted. “We can leverage all of the information we have learned, and we will have fewer alternatives to consider.

“We’re building on this foundation,” she explained.

“When we came up with these alternatives, there is an inherent prioritization on each of the alternatives to honor a specific objective,” she said. The flows on the charts are starting points. “These are things we will test,” said Mallet.

“Our system is so complex and there are so many moving parts,” she said. Mallet compared the lake schedule to a balloon – if you squeeze one part you don’t know where another part might pop out.

“We may have a lot of good intuition as to how things are going to respond,” she said. “Until we put these ideas into a model and test it, we don’t know how things will turn out.

“Sometimes, intuition is wrong,” she said.

“It looks like some alternatives take one stakeholder group and make it look good for them and the chips fall where they may for everyone else,” said Dr. Paul Gray of Florida Audubon.

“The first two alternatives look like they are going to make the lake really deep,” he said, adding this would be bad for the health of the lake.

He noted the models include lake releases larger than the corps normally makes. Gray said the majority of years used in the modeling were in a dry period. The weather patterns have changed in more recent years, he explained.

“One of the concerns I keep hearing is this is moving so quickly and we are going to have to live with what this next round shows,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation.

“I don’t think anyone is disputing the need for adaptations in management as time goes on,” said Ryan Rossi of the South Florida Water Coalition. Things are not the same as they were a decade ago. So many of the external factors – such as weather and water supply demands – have changed, he said.

“You can’t exercise flexibility with something that so many communities depend on, their water,” he said.

“The health of Lake Okeechobee should be top priority,” said Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers Florida. “If the lake is not healthy, none of the stakeholders are going to be happy,” he added.

“Putting a 10.5 foot target at the end of the dry season would end up with more discharges, larger discharges and more disruptive discharges to the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee rivers,” noted Cook.

“I think we’re moving way too fast,” said Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford. “We took two years to get to this point. Now we’re going to have about a month for staff to evaluate plans.

“Because of this covid situation, a lot of things have had to be postponed or slowed down,” said Watford. “I think we need a little more time to consider this. I don’t think we should make a final decision until we can get together in person.”

Watford said schools have proven many students learning through Zoom are not learning as well as those who can meet in person. He theorized the same is true for the stakeholders on the PDT.

“As part of our testing we are going to be fine-tuning or tailoring what the inflow times are for the stormwater treatment areas (STAs),” added Eva Velez, USACE Strategic Program Manager.

LOSOM is going to change the quantity and timing of flow south and flow to the greater Everglades, she said. The rules that govern flow south from Lake Okeechobee will change.

Water sent to the Everglades must first be cleaned to meet water quality standards for flow into Everglades National Park.

The Everglades does not need water all of the time, Velez explained. Sometimes the Everglades are too wet.

Savannah Lacy, USACE Lake Okeechobee Water Manager, said the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) which went into effect in 2008, covers a very short period of time compared to the years used for the modeling.

“We just don’t know what the next years will throw at us,” she said. “We are evaluating different ways of sending water to the estuaries, sending water south.”

 Lacy said the corps will work with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to monitor the conditions on the ground.

“In catastrophic conditions when something crazy going on, we are going to be pushing water everywhere we can,” she said.

“STAs are living things,” said Lacy. “They go through cycles.” She said the intent of LOSOM is not to make it more difficult for the state to meet water quality requirements.

“The Caloosahatchee cannot continue to be the release valve for the entire system,” said Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith. “We want to ensure flexibility remains in the alternatives.”

Lacy said alternative EE incorporates memory and flexibility into the schedule.

“We look at where we have been in the past and incorporate memory into a schedule that asks the right questions at the right time,” explained Lacy.

“We will look back at what’s happened in the past three months, what’s happened in the past year,” she said.

“We will look at where we are now with lake schedule and conditions and incorporate flexibility in the plan.”

Alternative EE calls for decision points in February, May and November to consider triggers that might indicate the lake operation plan to move between different modes of operation for normal, conservation, wet and recovery situations.

“When you are in a mode, you can change at next decision point,” she explained. “Traditionally we’ve had a regulation schedule that is the same from year to year. What we see as water managers is Mother Nature will throw us things that we weren’t expecting, or the plan doesn’t work well in extreme times such as hurricanes, or drought or extreme algal blooms.”

Tim Gysan, USACE project manager, said their goal is to have the modeling data out to PDT by the end of June and to identify a recommended schedule in July.

“We’ll be making tweaks to the suggested plans as we move forward,” he said.

Lake Okeechobee, LOSOM, PDT, lake level, algae, releases, Everglades