If you really care about South Florida’s water supply and water quality, get ready to do some research.
In 2022, when the repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are repaired, the corps will manage the lake under a new operating system, which will replace the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). This plan will help the corps determine when to release water from the lake, how much water to release, and through which water control structures it will flow.
At the May 7 Lake Okeechobee Systems Operating Manual (LOSOM) Project Delivery Team meeting, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff reviewed five arrays -- labeled AA through EE -- to be put through computer modeling. The modeling, based on decades of rainfall data, will tell them what would have happened if they had a certain plan in place during a particular weather event or year. Four of the arrays (AA through DD) each target a particular goal such as reducing harmful freshwater discharges to the St. Lucie River, protecting water supply for utilities and agriculture, or protecting the ecological health of the lake. Alternative EE is a balanced approach that provides more flexibility in water release decisions.
At the May 7 meeting, Jessica Mallet, USACE engineering lead on the project, said four of the arrays provide 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 (what happened in prevoius years with similar weather patterns) and flexibility. These models will be used as a starting point for collaboration with the inter-agency modeling center, she explained.
Since that PDT meeting, some lobbying groups and politicians have been conducting letter writing, email and phone campaigns pushing for a particular array ... despite the fact the corps has not yet released the data on the extensive computer modeling, and despite the fact the corps officials explained at the June LOSOM PDT meeting they did not plan to just pick one of the five arrays, but instead would use the data to develop a final balanced plan that will benefit all of the stakeholders.
In a June 4 media briefing, Col. Andrew Kelly, comander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, explained the modeling data from all five arrays will be released June 9.
“All of these arrays have a different perspective on balance,” he said. “Some help some areas more than others.”
Kelly said while no group will get everything they would like from LOSOM, the corps is working to make sure that the new plan is an improvement on the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS).
“I firmly believe all portions of the system will get some benefit from the schedule,” he said. “The new LOSOM manual will absolutely be better than the one we are operating under, almost across the board.”
Kelly said each group of stakeholders will review the data from different perspectives.
“People are looking for different things,” he said. “Everyone is going to start looking at that data through their lens, figuring out what they want to see.”
Extensive modeling of the plans, using the wealth of decades of historic rainfall data will give everyone a clearer understanding of the potential advantages and disadvantages of various ways to manage the lake levels, and it should help the corps avoid unexpected negative consequences.
Kelly said there could be some surprises in the modeling data for some stakeholders. “Maybe the plan that was their preferred alternative didn’t work out as they hoped,” he added. “We’re giving everybody a chance to chew on the data, then we’re going to share what we saw when looking at the data and then we will talk about it.”
“We will have a delivery team meeting on June 17 to show the data that we have transmitted,” he continued, “and to talk about what that modeling result shows.
The June LOSOM PDT meeting will be followed by subteam meetings, and the South Florida Water Management District will also host workshops.
“We’ve got some workshops after that, to make sure all of that data is truly understood so that we can get into decision-making model,” continued Kelly.
“In July, we will receive feedback through delivery team meetings and other ways we get feedback,” he said. “I anticipate making a decision on that framework in late July or first part of August.
“Then the real work about turning that into an actual operating manual and a scehdule with the appropriate decision points will extend past the July-August time frame,” he said. “We will hone in on that and optimize that so we can get every single speck of benefit across the board that we can get."
Kelly’s calm explanation about how the corps will follow science to find the most beneficial plan for the whole watershed is at odds with the narrative pushed by Congressman Brian Mast, who has focused on stopping all lake releases to the St. Lucie River.
In CBS 12 News interview May 13, Mast compared the corps’ actions releasing water from the lake to a war crime. “If this were a situation overseas, they would be brought to Hague for poisoning people,” Mast declared. The poisons he referenced are the microcystin toxins that are sometimes released by cyanobacteria found in freshwater ecosystems.
On June 1, in a press event at the Port Mayaca Lock, Mast claimed array CC would eliminate releases to the St. Lucie while still providing a “palatable” flow of dry season water to the Caloosahatchee. While Mast was joined by representatives from Everglades Foundation affiliate Captains for Clean Water, and claimed his favored plan has support from both coasts, Lee County officials do not agree.
In a May 11 letter to Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kevn Ruane chair of the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, stated “all four plans that include decision trees appear to be varying levels of devastation for the Caloosahatchee estuary. This is unacceptable.” Ruane stated plans AA, BB, CC and DD “unilaterally sacrifice the Caloosahatchee estuary to protect other parts of the water management system.”
While Lee County officials don’t want lake releases to the Caloosahatchee River in the wet season when there is sufficient local basin rainfall to supply the river’s freshwater needs, they also do not want the lake level kept so low that the Caloosahatchee River is starved of water in the dry season. They maintain the minimum lake releases guaranteed under the current LORS plan of 450 cubic feet per second (cfs) – measured at the Franklin Lock 40 miles west of the lake – are not high enough to keep the salinity levels of the Caloosahachee Estuaries in balance.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website states: “We tested tens of thousands of plans, including several iterations that greatly reduced or even eliminated all releases to the St. Lucie Estuary. During the first phase of testing the single performance measure plans, none of the plans that eliminated all releases to the St. Lucie estuary were able to do so without harming performance in other areas.”
In reference to the Ruane’s letter, Kelly responded, “We’re going to see the actual model results and the data and we’re going to have a good hard conversation about what LOSOM is going to do for the Caloosahatchee. I believe and all indicators point to the fact the Caloosahatchee will do much better in a future schedule than it is doing right now under the current schedule.”
A letter signed by officials from communities around Lake Okeechobee asked the corps to ensure adequate water supply. Millions of South Floridians depend on the lake for water supply, including utilities that draw water directly from the Big O and those whose wells are recharged by lake water that percolates into the aquifer.
“Water supply for our drinking water, agriculture, flood protection and recreational access to the lake are all important objectives we hope to see protected,” they explained. The letter signed by Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford, Clewiston Mayor Kristine Peterson, Glades County Commission Chair Tim Stanley, Okeechobee County Commission Chair Terry Burroughs and Okeechobee Utility Authority Executive Director John Hayford, asked corps officials to follow the science, even if “we cannot pretend to understand all the science.”