Col. Kelly visits Okeechobee to explain plan for managing Lake O

Posted 7/30/21

OKEECHOBEE – Lake Okeechobee area residents expressed concerns about water supply and the health of the Lake Okeechobee ecology at the July 28 meeting of the Okeechobee Economic …

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Col. Kelly visits Okeechobee to explain plan for managing Lake O

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OKEECHOBEE -- Col. Andrew Kelly (second from left) met with lake area representatives on July 28. At left is South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governor Board Member Ben Butler. Third from left is Libby Pigman, of SFWMD. At right is Economic Council Chairman Brandon Tucker.
OKEECHOBEE -- Col. Andrew Kelly (second from left) met with lake area representatives on July 28. At left is South Florida Water Management District …

OKEECHOBEE – Lake Okeechobee area residents expressed concerns about water supply and the health of the Lake Okeechobee ecology at the July 28 meeting of the Okeechobee Economic Council.

Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was the guest speaker at the meeting, held on the Indian River State College Dixon-Hendry Campus.

Since announcing the new plan for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) on July 19, Kelly has been traveling around the 16 counties in the South Florida Water Management District to explain the broad terms of the plan which will be used to manage Lake O when the repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are complete in late 2022. Kelly also sought stakeholder feedback on how the plan might be “optimized.”

Economic Council Chairman Brandon Tucker, who formerly served on the South Florida Water Management District, said water supply is a big concern for those who live and work around Lake O. “Only God knows when, where and how much it’s going to rain,” he said. “We would rather have a little too much (water) than not enough.

“There are folks on the coast, they don’t really care about the lake,” he said. “They don’t care if the dike’s not there. They don’t care if there’s an inch of water in it.”

Tucker said water has become a political issue.

Kelly said the corps starting working on LOSOM in 2018. Normally, such a plan would have been developed over an 18-month time frame. “We started earlier than our normal business,” he explained.

Kelly said he came on board in 2018, knowing the repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike – the earthen berm that surrounds Lake Okeechobee for flood control – would be completed in 2022. He said he decided to start working on LOSOM early because “we’ve got to get it right.”

Kelly said they looked at the data gathered for decades about the inflows and outflows. There is no “average year” on Lake O, because no one year meets the statistical average. “Any given year it is wildly different,” he explained. “Only God can tell you when the rain is going to come.”

In 2020, the lake started the wet season at 11 feet above sea level and ended the wet season at 16.45 feet above sea level. “Statistically, that shouldn’t have happened,” he continued.

Hurricane Eta, which hit the state in November, proved that late season storms can change everything. Eta also proved the construction work on the dike is working, he added. “I am confident the work we’ve been doing on the dike all this time is paying off.”

While the canals that provide flood control for South Florida can move water much faster than nature intended, Lake Okeechobee’s ecology requires the water to gradually rise in the wet season and gradually fall in the dry season. Kelly said if they let the lake recede more than half a foot a month in the dry season, the snail kite nests are in danger. Snail kits build their nests in marshes over the water which gives the nest some protection from predators. If the marsh under the nest dries out, the eggs or young are easier prey for predators.

The chosen framework for LOSOM, dubbed option CC in the planning phase, has an upper lake limit of just over 17 feet above sea level. Even with the dike repairs, that is the upper limit set for the safety of the dike. There is also a lower limit on the lake level set by state law, which ranges from 10.5 feet at the start of the wet season to 12 feet at the start of the dry season. Option CC sets the level of 13 feet as the limit for “Zone F.” In that zone, water will only be released for permitted users. For example, Kelly said, below 13 feet, the Caloosahatchee River would only receive the minimum flow required by law.

Zone A ranges between approximately 16.9 feet on June 1 to about17.2 feet in October.
Below that are zones B and C where up to 7,200 cubic feet per second can be released west and 3,600 cfs can be released east during wet conditions. During dry conditions up to 750 cfs can be released west and 0 east in dry conditions. 
Largest zone is Zone D. Releases in this zone range between 750 and 2,200 cfs to the west and 0 to the east. 
Zone E allows up to 750 cfs to go west. 
In Zone F, there are no releases specified to the estuaries or to the south in this zone, but as in any zone, the state of Florida can allocate water out of the lake. 
Flows south occur in zones A, B, C, D, and E. 
Flows east and west vary in each zone depending on whether conditions are wet or dry. 
Wet versus dry is determined by both current inflows/basins conditions as well as short and long-term forecasted conditions. 
Wet conditions for this alternative measure lake releases at S-77 (Julian Keen Jr. Lock at Moore Haven) and drier conditions at S-79 (Franklin Lock).
Zone A ranges between approximately 16.9 feet on June 1 to about17.2 feet in October. Below that are zones B and C where up to 7,200 cubic feet …

Kelly said during the “optimization” period, the corps will consider minor improvements to plan CC but not drastic changes. He said they are looking for water management tools that will allow the corps to make smart choices at the right time, and caution against making bad choices. “CC is a framework, but there is a lot of work left to do,” he explained. “We can’t fix everything. We have to decide what we are going to focus on to make this plan a little bit better.”

“I am confident the next lake schedule will be better than the current one,” he said.

Once the optimization of the plan is complete, they will seek biological opinions to consider how the schedule will affect endangered species like the snail kite.

Jeff Sumner, of Sumner Engineering and Consulting, said in 2008, when the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) was put into place, area residents were told it was a temporary change due to the instability of the dike. He said the Water Supply/Environment (WSE) schedule used before 2008 provided more water supply than LORS. When LOSOM goes into effect, they had expected water supply to increase back to the pre-2008 levels. But instead of using WSE as the baseline to judge water supply, plan CC uses LORS as the baseline.

Sumner said there are concerns coastal residents are pushing for environmental releases of lake water all the way down to a lake level of 10.5 feet above sea level. This would threaten water supply for users such as the Okeechobee Utility Authority, which draws potable water from Lake O and the City of West Palm Beach which relies on lake water for half of their dry season water supply.

“We are not going to go forward with an optimization that throws away CC,” said Kelly. “We’re not breaking CC. We’re not going off the rails.

Kelly said water supply is an important component of plan CC.

Lake area residents also expressed concerns about the ecology of the big lake. Lake Okeechobee’s ecology is best served by water levels that fall to 12 or 12.5 feet above sea level at the start of the wet season and rise gradually to 15 or 15.5 feet at the start of the dry season. Levels above 16 feet damage the lake’s marshes, which clean the water and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. Extreme low levels also damage the marshes.

Kelly said plan CC looks like the lake will be higher more often than what happened with LORS. “It will be at 17 feet more often than it is now,” he said. He said they might add a “recover” element to bring the lake down at least once in a decade to allow the marshes to recover.

Hendry County Commission Karson Turner said lake levels above 15.5 feet hurt the lake’s ecology. A higher lake level for longer periods of time will damage the submerged aquatic vegetation, he said. That vegetation is key to the survival of the fisheries.

“It’s a frightening situation for the lake we love,” said Turner.

Turner said he is also concerned about the strong voices on the coast which want to do away with the Zone F restriction that would conserve water when the lake falls below 13 feet.

Kelly said no matter what the numbers on the schedule, the corps will still try to avoid the extreme highs and extreme lows. Keeping the lake in the middle gives the corps more options, he explained.

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