- Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a preferred alternative for future Lake Okeechobee releases.
- Kelly said that what’s known as alternative CC is now the preferred model and will likely be the final choice for the future regulation of the lake.
- Called the Lake Okeechobee System Operational Manual, or LOSOM, this set of regulations will guide the future of lake releases and dictate what amount of water is sent where and when.
Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Monday a preferred alternative for future Lake Okeechobee releases, and environmental advocates say the news isn’t good for the Caloosahatchee River and residents of Southwest Florida.
Kelly said during a press conference that what’s known as alternative CC is now the preferred model and will likely be the final choice for the future regulation of the lake.
“We walked through our analysis and our decision to move forward preliminarily with the preferred alternative of CC, and what I basically explained in that decision was as you look at that information and working for a couple of plus years with all the stakeholders, (it) helped us define the matrix that we compared and made this choice, as we looked at CC it scored in the top three in 10 of the 11 criteria. So from our perspective it represents the best alternative.”
Called the Lake Okeechobee System Operational Manual, or LOSOM, this set of regulations will guide the future of lake releases and dictate what amount of water is sent where and when.
Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of what’s left of the historic Everglades, and water from the lake can either spare the Caloosahatchee River from harmful conditions or blast the estuary 15 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
Kelly said LOSOM will be in place for close to 10 years.
The next phase will include improvements to the CC alternative to help with high flows for the Caloosahatchee River.
A draft environmental impact statement will be finished by February, and a final decision is expected by November 2022.
The CC plan sends the most amount of water to the Caloosahatchee River in the summer months, when blue-green algae blooms are most common on Lake Okeechobee.
“We looked at the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie two different ways,” Kelly said. “We looked at he environment and ecology and what’s called an algal bloom risk metric and quite simply is really just a total volume of water in the summer months when Lake Okeechobee could have algae present. It does not perform well for algal blooms and releases for the Caloosahatchee River.”
Southwest Florida environmental groups for the most part weren’t happy with the decision.
Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, who has long said the river has long received less attention than other parts of the system, said the plan will send more water to the river and estuary when we need it least.
“That’s kind of the way it looks, but I don’t think they’re done with CC yet,” Cassani said. “But it doesn’t look terribly encouraging. It doesn’t look great for the Caloosahatchee and it doesn’t look great for Okeechobee. No one should see this as a silver bullet.”
Cassani said the Everglades system is tapped out in terms of water permits and the amount of water that’s already been allocated by the state.
“The environment doesn’t bode well during these exercises,” he said. “It’s a frustrating policy because the resource is not going to fare as well as agriculture, which has almost optimal conditions for flood control and water supply.”
Perspectives from environmental groups varied as the CC alternative will help nearly every area of the system but the Caloosahatchee.
“The Everglades Foundation (based in the Miami area) is delighted with the Army Corps’ decision to recommend alternative CC as the preliminary preferred alternative for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual,” said Stephen Davis, with the Everglades Foundation. “Although this plan still needs to be optimized to deliver more water south to the Everglades during the dry season, alternative CC is the ideal starting point to a more balanced and fair management of the public’s water.”
Kelly said the CC alternative works well for the Caloosahatchee River during dry conditions and when flows are at more average rates.
Once the flows get high, though, the Caloosahatchee River is basically turned into a flood plain, a drainage basin for one of most massive agriculture networks in the nation.
“It needs water from the lake in the dry season and CC does a really good job of that and it likes water in the optimal zone as much as possible and CC does that. And with the total volume of water in the algae season it does less well,” Kelly said when asked how this plan shared adversity for the Caloosahatchee River and Southwest Florida.
Other environmental advocates on the east coast said the alternative is better for the overall system but not necessarily for the Caloosahatchee River.
“While we’re encouraged by the Army Corps’ selection of Plan CC, the new Lake O playbook won’t be successful unless it’s optimized to bring necessary relief to the Caloosahatchee Estuary — without sending additional water to the St. Lucie,” said Eve Samples, director of Friends of the Everglades. “This can be accomplished by sending additional clean water south during the dry season, rather than stockpiling it in the lake for irrigation of large corporate sugarcane growers south of Lake Okeechobee.”
Samples said the Army Corps should better consider recent algal blooms that have crippled the Southwest Florida economy.
“Let’s not forget the toxic-algae blooms that plagued Florida’s coasts in 2018, threatening public health and crippling local economies,” Samples said. “The new LOSOM plan is an opportunity to avert such disasters in the future. Plan CC puts us on the right path — but the Army Corps and state water managers still have work to do. We’ve got to get this right.”
Kelly said the CC alternative still needs work, and that he hopes the agency will be able to tweak the regulations to better help the Caloosahatchee during high flow periods when algae blooms are present on Lake Okeechobee.
“What it doesn’t necessarily perform well in is with the high flows and now the stakeholders are talking more about the high flow areas and how to deal with that in the optimization,” Kelly said. “Clearly from the Caloosahatchee side of the house, they’re laser beam focused on not only the lower and optimal range but also the high flows.”
Many water advocates on the west coast have criticized the CC plan because it sends the most lake water to the Caloosahatchee out of the five alternatives that were considered.
“We’ve got another iteration of modeling to go and what we’re looking for is suggestions for optimizing,” Kelly said. “Up until now we’ve done hundred of thousands of modeling runs and we’ve seen the interactions of different choices in performance and the alternative CC kind of performs the best in the terms of balance and totality across the board.”
Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.