WEST PALM BEACH – “There’s no such thing as an average year” when it comes to Lake Okeechobee, Col, Andrew Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District to the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee Estuaries, and the Lake Worth Lagoon at their Oct. 30 meeting.
He said they don’t have a crystal ball to predict the rainfall.
At the start of the 2018-2019 dry season, the corps made a deliberate attempt to lower the lake. The lake had been high for several years in a row, damaging the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), “We started pushing water to the estuaries at a time with the operations manual doesn’t do releases to the east and west,” he explained. “We didn’t want to end up at a bad place at the end of the dry season, so we pushed.”
At the time, weather predictions called for an average rainy season which would have replenished the lake. Instead “we ended up having an extremely short wet season,” he said. “We started this past year lower than anticipated and went into water conservation mode.
Because they were concerned about water supply, they allowed water from the C-44 canal to backflow into Lake Okeechobee “until the last minute possible” during the 2020 wet season.
The rainy season was average through September, he said.
“We thought we were going to make it to the end of the wet season without discharges and we almost made it,” he said. Then October brought record rainfall, pushing the lake up past 16 feet.
This means the district will start the dry season with a high lake level.
Col. Kelly said the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) will give the corps more flexibility in how and when they move water.
He said the water storage projects currently under construction east and west of the lake and planned south and north will make a difference in lake operation. However, because these projects will not be complete until after 2022, they will not be part of the initial LOSOM.
LOSOM will be adopted in 2022 when the repairs on the Herbert Hoover Dike are complete. Two annexes to the plan will also be ready at that time. One will be implemented with the C-44 reservoir east of the lake comes online. The other annex will be automatically implemented with the C-43 reservoir west of the lake comes online. The C-43 construction is expected to be complete in 2023.
Kelly said LOSOM modeling includes consideration of the additional 130,000 acres of natural floodplain which will slow the flow of the Kissimmee River into the lake when the Kissimmee River Restoration Project is completed in Spring 2021. “It’s been a long time coming but we’re going to get this thing completed in the Spring,” he added.
It will not consider the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir, because it will not be built before 2022. LOSOM will not consider the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan (LOWRP) because that project. He said because those projects have not yet started construction there are still too many unknown factors to write a plan to address how the projects will change lake operation.
Col. Kelly said the corps has just finished 120,000 model runs for potential LOSOM schedules considering how various plans effect water supply navigation, recreation and preservation of fish and wildlife.
He said they will throw out “the extremes” and weed down the possible lake schedules to “9 or 10 really plausible ones.”
“We know Lake Okeechobee has to be in balance,” said Kelly. Between now and March, the corps will work on a set of possible lake schedules for public input.
“We will have a schedule that we tentatively select by July,” he continued. “Between then and 2022, we will have plenty of discussion if that is right or wrong and tweak that as we go.
“There is so much interest and so much communication going on, it’s going to be hard to screw this one up,” said Kelly.
The LOSOM manual adopted in 2022 will be used for about 7 to 10 years, said Kelly. When the EAA reservoir is ready to come online, there will be a new LOSOM or a schedule with a different name.
“Because of where we are in construction for C-44 and C-43, we know how those will work,” said Kelly. “It’s baked in the cake in the LOSOM model.”
He said “the EAA reservoir will be a significant event that will allow us to change the LOSOM again. Two years before EAA reservoir is complete, will start LOSOM study again.”
The EAA reservoir could “fundamentally change how we manage Lake Okeechobee,” said Col. Kelly.
In November, the corps will meet with the Florida Blue Green Algae Task Force to discuss the metric to be used for algae blooms to determine when algae in the lake reaches the level that water should not be released to the estuaries.
“15.5 feet is my high end,” said Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner, who is the chair of the coalition. I don’t care what your experts say. Don’t kill our lake.”