By Col. Andrew Kelly
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District
JACKSONVILLE -- One of the challenges we face at the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is balancing all of the purposes of managing Lake Okeechobee given to us by Congress – flood control, water supply, navigation, recreation, and preservation of fish and wildlife resources.
Our approach is to find opportunities when and where these purposes align and have synergy while working within the bounds of the operational criteria. This requires that our talented water managers and scientists, working in concert with those from our partner agencies, continue to assimilate the latest scientific data from across the South Florida ecosystem to inform deliberate and transparent decisions.
Before 2018, we faced several years of rainfall-driven high lake levels that resulted in high-flow releases to the estuaries. At the same time, Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) had serious impacts to Florida two out of the last three previous years.
In Fall 2018, we successfully executed the operational flexibility defined in the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule to improve the lake’s ecology while providing for water supply needs in the region. We saw submerged aquatic vegetation increase four-fold to 20,000 acres, built enough capacity to absorb heavy mid-summer rains that raised the lake stage by two feet without making releases to the estuaries, were in a good position to deal with Hurricane Dorian when it threatened the state, and had enough water to maintain flows to the Caloosahatchee.
The operational flexibility we used supported many project purposes, but still resulted in challenges. Navigation was impacted as lake stages receded and locks had to restrict hours. The water levels that were best for SAV recovery were not ideal in the short term for nesting birds, though scientists believe that nesting habitat will improve in the long term if the lower lake levels are not repeated annually.
While the summer of 2019 was free of a major algal bloom, the threat has not gone away. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is reporting increasing potential for blooms on the lake. Even though we started the rainy season near 11 feet, the lake rose more than a foot in 30 days. Heavy rains in May put the water conservation areas (WCAs) at or above schedule and sent large volumes of runoff into the stormwater treatment areas (STAs).
As we enter this rainy season, we will keep focusing on balancing the purposes of lake water management and setting favorable conditions by taking these actions:
• Continue to over communicate with the public and stakeholders through our website, social media, routine traditional media engagements, and meetings as the pandemic allows.
• Allow the lake to end the wet season at a higher level to increase resiliency in the coming months.
• Build capacity in the system by moving water south from the WCAs and STAs into Everglades National Park.
• Avoid high-flow lake releases to the estuaries.
• Coordinate with FDEP and Florida Department of Health on water quality conditions when making decisions.
We will also finish Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation on schedule in 2022 and immediately implement a Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual that is informed by the latest science and shaped by all stakeholders.
While I can’t promise there won’t be high volume lake releases to the estuaries this year, I can promise that we will keep working hard and make smart water management decisions to balance flood control, water supply, navigation, recreation, and preservation of fish and wildlife resources. As we know, there are no “average” years and one storm event can change everything.
Working together, we can and will continue to reduce risk and enhance the use of this critical resource in the complex and ever changing South Florida system.