LAKE OKEECHOBEE -- The proposed “balanced arrays” for the Lake Okeechobee Operating System Manual (LOSOM) raise the upper limit on the lake to 17.25 feet or higher.
That’s bad news for the lake’s ecology, according to Dr. Paul Gray of Florida Audubon. Levels of 16 feet or higher can destroy the lake’s marshes, which would in turn devastate the fisheries.
In a June 18 media briefing, Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said just because the upper limit for the lake may change, that does not mean they will try to keep the lake that high.
The top of the schedule is moving upward and that is a result of being able to accept water levels higher because of the nearly $2 billion of construction to rehabilitate of the Herbert Hoover Dike, Kelly explained.
The risk to the dike is now is significantly lower than it was in 2008 when the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) was adopted in 2008.
“We’re not as concerned as we were prior to the rehabilitation,” he explained.
The lake ecology band is still 12 to 15.5 feet, Kelly said. “That 15.5 foot line is a reference for trying to get a lake ecology correct.”
The 17.25 feet line “is about the tolerance is to hold lake water higher, given storm events or rain events,” he said.
“Our timing takes into consideration that the lake can get higher,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we are going to try to keep it high.
“When you look at all of the arrays there is a difference, most pronounced when you look at lake ecology,” said Kelly. “The reason for lowering the top line for LORS was due to a risk in the dike,” he said. “It almost made a LORS schedule that mirrored a lake ecology schedule.”
Much of the time, Mother Nature is in charge of the lake level. LORS did not prevent the lake from getting higher than the schedule indicated after hurricane events or below the desired level during droughts.
“We trying to balance the ecology, water supply, navigation, recreation ... trying to find the best place we can land,” said Kelly.
“We are going to get every ounce of benefit in the next manual for Lake Okeechobee as humanly possible,” he said.
Many of those who live around the lake have pointed to the need for more storage north of Lake Okeechobee to slow the flow into the lake and clean the water before it goes into the Big O.
Kelly said the corps continues to work on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP). He said the corps has an agreement with the South Florida Water Management District enabling the district to go ahead with work on the Aquifer Storage and Recovery Wells (ASRs) for LOWRP even before the corps has funding for other parts of the project. The 80 ASR wells will provide most of the water storage in LOWRP. Other LOWRP features include wetlands restoration. In 2019 and 2020, the state legislature allocated $50 million each year for SFWMD to “jump start” work on LOWRP. In April 2021, the Florida Legislature passed a bill to continue funding LOWRP. SB 2516 requires the SFWMD to request that the USACE seek expedited congressional approval of the LOWRP and execute a project partnership agreement with the USACE immediately following approval. The bill also requires expedited implementation of the ASR Science Plan developed by the SFWMD and the USACE, and expedited implementation of the watershed ASR feature of the LOWRP.
Like other Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects, LOWRP funding is a 50-50 split between the federal and state governments.
LOWRP was not authorized in time to be included for federal funding in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020. Congress may pass a WRDA every two years, but sometimes gaps between WRDAs have been as long as seven years.
“We’re aiming for authorization in WRDA 2022,” said Kelly. “We have a little more work to do.”